Hugh Reilly: An absence of Christmas tackiness

Melchior, one of the Wise Men rides through town by camel. Picture: AFP/Getty
Melchior, one of the Wise Men rides through town by camel. Picture: AFP/Getty
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This Christmas cynic will nevertheless sit stony-faced at the table in Spain wishing for a helping of plum duff, writes Hugh Reilly

I like certainty in my life. When I resided in my north Glasgow ex-council house grotto, I knew Christmas must be nigh when I spotted my first Big Issue seller wearing a Poundstretcher Santa hat. Living now in southern Spain, it’s difficult for me to comprehend that the season to be sozzled is upon us. Instead of stalactites hanging from both nostrils, warm sunshine incubates more freckles on my bald bonce – not for nothing do my pals call me “nougat heid”.

Geldof’s charidee choon, Do They Know it’s Christmas? could well apply to the folks populating the Iberian Peninsula. Save for the tokenistic Feliz Navidad poster in the odd shop window, trips to the shopping centre are devoid of the traditional experiences we associate with celebrating the Messiah’s first coming. For one thing, the piped muzak does not have Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, a Christmas jingle which singlehandedly accounts for the December spike in the public’s consumption of Prozac. Inside the Spanish temples to Mammon, there aren’t lines of frustrated parents with girning kids waiting to see an over-nourished bloke in a red suit who has been plucked from the misery of the dole queue and handed a zero-hours contract.

In the streets around me, householders aren’t trying to keep up with Los Joneses by lighting up their houses and gardens as if the property were a landing strip for Santa’s sleigh. The sight of a miniature Saint Nicholas figure drooping from a balcony is a sure sign that the occupier is a UK passport-holder. In a sop to the grumbling ex-pat community, local councils do put up the odd festive illumination but a five-light-bulb Rudolph is hardly Blackpoolesque.

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Thanks to American media imperialism – with programmes such as The Simpsons being the point of the spear – Spain is incrementally embracing Anglo-American Christmas culture. Forty or so years ago, in the only recorded failure of Coca-Cola’s marketing department, Father Christmas didn’t exist south of the Pyrenees. The advent of television gave birth to Papa Noel, the Espanol alias of Santa Claus, and he is now a respected figure on the festive circuit (NB: anyone in the public eye in Spain not tainted with corruption allegations is revered).

Unlike greedy, grasping children in Britain, Spanish kids don’t write out wish lists – or, to be more accurate these days, ransom demands for material goods – addressed to the white-bearded man awarded the Freedom of Lapland, an awful punishment. Instead, greedy, grasping ninos petition their extortion ultimatums to the Three Kings on the feast of the Epiphany. By way of contrast, there is no hint of menace in the build-up to the unequal exchange of gifts (that is, the benign kings make no inquiries as to the child’s behaviour during the year).

On Christmas Day, Spanish families gather round the table and talk loudly – no change then from a normal day. In my part of Spain, a typical Christmas lunch would be fish or a bit of lamb. As someone who enjoys any excuse to release the inner glutton that salivates within my body, I admit to missing the Rab Ha’ portions of food that tower from the plate like an Iron-Age burial mound. My mouth aches to masticate on roasted potatoes and savour the fatty delights of popping down a couple of Yorkshire puddings. On the plus side, I don’t miss watching the staple menu of Crimbo films with the family, especially when the air quality has been somewhat polluted by the after-effects of diners having gorged on high-fibre Brussels sprouts.

Like many of those who have decided that the Costa Blanca is that part of Spain that will be forever England, I’ll be delivering my Christmas message to my four children via Skype. Naturally, I’d rather be there in person and witness at first hand the huge disappointment my gifts bring to them; I have to say last year’s prezzies of castanets and stick-on Mexican moustaches represented a new low in pater-progeny relations. Skype is impersonal – what’s not to like about it? Whereas it’s considered bad form to prematurely leave a Christmas get-together, a simple click on the “end call” icon abruptly but efficiently terminates an extended period of stilted conversation.

By dint of not having access to UK TV programmes, I’ll miss out on hearing the Winterfest Buckingham Palace musings of the Queen, something I’m steeling myself for. Doubtless Dame Edna’s doppelganger will exhort her subjects to care for others less fortunate in society. As someone in receipt of government benefit and living in accommodation replete with 52 Royal and guest boudoirs, Her Majesty is fortunate that her Prime Minister’s “bedroom tax” doesn’t force her to downsize. To slightly contort the fine words of Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, of Filth fame, clearly “the same rules don’t apply”.

Spaniards don’t send Christmas cards, a wonderful modus operandi that reduces Christmas stress. No longer do I need to get my mother to painstakingly look up the names and addresses of extended family members, neighbours, former neighbours, fair weather friends, acquaintances and the postman whom I have studiously ignored for 364 days of the year. As she is aged 85 and a bit on the frail side, it anguishes me to watch her courageously struggle with writer’s cramp as she exhaustingly pens my sincere “Be Merry” wishes to all and sundry.

Although she protested, deep down I think she enjoyed scribbling at my insistent behest. Like most pensioners, she collects Christmas cards like Pokemon cards – she has to have them all. Her cards are slung sleepily from string hammocks pinned to the wall above the hearth (at all other times of the year, it’s called the fireplace). Like a Barlinnie warder afflicted with a bad case of OCD, she counts ’em fastidiously; if she ever received less than 40, I fear she’d reach for the large kitchen knife that can, as advertised, cut through even a shoe.

Truth be told, this Christmas I’ll be sitting at a dinner table, stony-faced, understanding little of the excitable Murcian dialect chat dominating proceedings. I’ll be yearning to be wearing a crêpe-paper crown that previously I had foolishly dismissed as the epitome of Christmas tackiness. I’ll be pining for Christmas pudding and wish I were having a few beers in Glasgow’s Horseshoe Bar with mates.

Merry Christmas, dear reader.

Ho, ho, ho.

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