Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Saint Nicholas is Coming to Town

Even though Barcelona's Christmas lights have been up since the end of November, Christmas-time in the city really begins on December 6th.

December 6th marks the rather prosaic Constitution Day in Spain, a national holiday commemorating the signing of the Spanish Constitution in 1978, three years following the end of Franco's dictatorship. Practically speaking, it's the last long weekend before Christmas. If the 6th happens to fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, todo el mundo hace el puente--that is, everyone takes a vacation day on the Monday or Friday to make it a four day weekend...five day if the holiday falls on the Wednesday. As a result, the day is sometimes referred to as El Puente de la Constitución.

Most everywhere else in Europe, December 6th is St. Nicholas' Day. St. Nicholas--patron saint of children, students, sailors, archers, merchants and pawnbrokers--is the less commercialized version of the modern day Santa Claus.

Legend has it that St. Nicholas was an infamous anonymous present giver. Preferring to eschew gift giving glory, he deposited his parcels after nightfall, long after prying little eyes were fast asleep. One story has it that he took pity on a poor farmer who wasn't able to afford dowries for his three nubile daughters. On three consecutive nights, St. Nicholas crept up to the family home and tossed gold into stockings that the sisters had hung out to dry thereby funding their dowries and saving the maids from a certain fate of prostitution--not to mention giving a whole other meaning to his signature "Ho! Ho! Ho!".

St. Nicholas is often depicted with three sacks or balls of gold in a nod to the legend. In certain countries, the balls of gold have been transformed into oranges in the popular imagination leading to the tradition of giving oranges as gifts on December 6th. Conveniently, it's when oranges happen to be in season.

While St. Nicholas' Day is not particularly celebrated in Spain, the Dutch seem to believe that Sinterklaas (the Dutch version of St. Nicholas) hails from these parts. Dutch legend has it that after Sinterklaas gives presents to all the good little children, he packs up all the bad little children in his empty sacks and takes them back to his Spanish lair. Presumably to work in his sweatshops...I mean workshops.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Weather Outside is Frightful

It's blustery and cold here in the Ciudad de Condal. The waves breaking on Barceloneta beach are impressive, as are the few surfers brave or crazy enough to venture in with their boards. Felipe and I are content to watch them, huddled into our coats and scarves, warming our hands on hot chestnuts if we can still find them.

We've been going out for long walks as often as we can on these frigid days--a sort of boot camp for our winter holidays in Canada. The unfortunate truth--and one I haven't yet let Felipe in on--is that a blustery day in Barcelona has nothing on a Canadian winter. I'm trying to break it to him gently, shall we say.

Our night walks are now lit by Barcelona's myriad constellations of Christmas lights and, by day, we often pass through the cathedral square, where the Fira de Santa Llucia (, with its gaudy holiday baubles and fragrant greenery, opened this weekend. Only the creche in Plaza de Sant Jaume remains a secret, though not one that's very well kept: you get a pretty good idea of the state of things by surreptitiously peeking through the green netting.

These are the last days of chestnut season--the few Castanyada shacks that haven't yet closed for business will likely do so in the next few weeks or so--and the early days of turrones and other Christmas sweets. If you're keen, you can read about the latter here: No Ordinary Nougat, Peladillas, and The Dustiest of Desserts.

All in all, a wonderful time to be in Barcelona, despite the cold.