|The trial of Father Christmas - 1686|
Sadly, Spain has now capitulated to Santa Claus and the commercially-driven Christmas of other European and Western World cultures despite having no historic background for this.
And as I say this, I do realise that Santa Claus's past is not exactly a clear-cut and murk-free story for those of us who have known him all our lives!
However, I really hate the purely materialistic portrayal here, demonstrated in the life-size plastic Santas that can be seen climbing up a ladder (I ask you!) onto balconies of the many apartments around here and the rest of Spain - more in Valladolid than I've seen around here.
No sense of 'Ho, Ho, Ho' or the kindly, twinkling-eyed old man who watches at all times the behaviour of (us and) our children.
And as Christmas Eve is the most important family time here in Spain and the eating and drinking goes on til the early hours, there is no way that children would be tucked up in bed when Santa made his secret visit down the chimney - so not sure how the magic can possibly be created such as that I remember as a child myself.
But a tradition that is prevalent in both the north and the south of Spain, (as well as in many other European countries,) is the Belén. I had a very precious Christmas ornament myself that came out every year, of a small stable with a high, pointed roof, above which was balanced a star; inside there was a tiny Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in a mini manger. I expect my mother still has this - I hope so. But the nativity scene here is often on an altogether larger scale.
Belén is the Spanish word for Bethlehem though I do suspect that many people here will not make that connection as the Belén is synonymous in their minds with the often very elaborate and beautiful nativity scenes that adorn most houses, many shop fronts, town halls and often whole villages during the Christmas period. I haven't visited a life recreation of the Belén though I saw one on the television last year based in the beautiful, mediaeval village of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria. The whole village was involved and it was most impressive though I suspect they must have been feeling rather chilly. There are similar scenes set in various villages across the country.
Here in Andalucia, a famous Belén is created every year by a biscuit factory in the village of Rute - about an hour's drive from our home, just across the border into Cordoba. It is made entirely of chocolate - mere 1450kg of it - and takes a number of chocolatiers around four months to create.
Of course we went to see it! The photos do not do it justice and neither could I capture the smell!
Stunning work. I found myself hugely impressed at the workmanship and attention to detail.
But then found myself thinking 'WHY'??? Bizarrely, the setting was Malaga, which sort of backs up my point about the word 'belen'. To me, the scene would have worked much better if it was delivered as such - an historical recreation of the town of Malaga in chocolate. It seemed a bit pointless having the little stable, with its important visitor, down by the old fishing port. But maybe I'm missing the point.....or expecting one where there is none.
Obviously, the whole point was to draw huge crowds to the biscuit factory. However, the attached shop had none of the skilled artesan work available - frankly, what they sold in the shops was most unappetising and unappealing. I had hoped for something different but it was just more of the same - the stuff you can buy in a supermarket only more expensive. Shame.
But an experience.
What hit the spot for me was the Hansel and Gretel 'gingerbread' house that had been made last year - with a mere 450kgs of chocolate - and which seemed a more appropriate subject!
And I think it was this that inspired me to come home and make some chocolates myself. I made a delicious rocky road with marshmallows, cranberries, raisins, some crunched up digestive biscuits and a little real orange for more depth of flavour, topped off with a sprinkling of icing sugar.
For the charming Belen created by my mother-in-law and my children, take a look at Mateo's photos from last Christmas.