Here’s our guide to Christmas in Menorca
With many hotels and restaurants open in the main towns, the Christmas and Reyes period still remains a peaceful and relaxing time to visit Menorca, away from all the hustle and bustle and general pre-Christmas mayhem, particuarly of UK towns and cities. During the day, you can enjoy long leisurely walks through beautiful woodland as well as along the beaches even taking a picnic, weather permitting, as there are usually quite a few days of sunshine and blue skies, with temperatures nudging the mid sixties and daylight until around 17.30 hours. At lunchtime and in the evenings there are plenty of restaurants open that cater for the locals, ranging from fine dining to good rustic food, and offer a great opportunity to try some authentic Menorcan cuisine and soak up the cheerful atmosphere.
The build up
From late November, pretty lights are put up in the towns and villages, the tastefully decorated streets and plazas enticing people to enjoy some festive shopping in the often mild evenings. On the first weekend in December, adults and children congregate after sundown outside the Santa Maria church in Mahón to await the arrival of ‘Els Llumets’ who herald the official start of the Christmas season. Els Llumets are four sprites who have been in charge of bringing the Christmas lights to Maó for a number of years. In an atmosphere of eager expectancy, they slide down on ropes from the bell tower to the Plaça Constitució whereupon all the street decorations are switched on, filling the town with festive lights. This year, there is also Christmas music on some evenings in the market square outside the Claustre del Carmen with a light show projected onto the front of the old cloister walls.
Each municipality puts on its own programme of Christmas activities, including carol concerts, children’s entertainment and sporting events, and beautiful nativity scenes are set up in the town halls and churches. In early December, many towns now hold a ‘Fira de Nadal’, an open air or indoor Christmas market selling all kinds of seasonal produce and traditional handicrafts (click here for more details). This year, the L’Ajuntament de Maó has once again displayed a magnificent nativity scene for everyone to enjoy with lifesize figures and animals as well as a large decorative Christmas tree in the Plaça Constitució.
In early December there are two National Public Holidays, the Día de la Constitución (Constitution Day) on 6 December to commemorate the return of Spain to democracy in 1978, followed immediately afterwards by the Fiesta of La Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception) on 8 December, the first of the official religious celebrations in honor of the Virgin Mary. Banks, business and shops are closed and many people take 7 December off as well, known as a ‘bridge’ or ‘puente’ day, linking the two holidays.
On 22 December, people all over Spain people never stray far from a TV or radio as the Christmas lottery is drawn during the day over several hours. Almost everyone in Spain buys a ticket for this lottery in the hope of winning ‘El Gordo’ (the fat one). Due to the enormous popularity of the game, each 5-digit set of numbers on each of the tickets is sold multiple times, in what are known as ‘series’. Between series, there is no difference in prize-money for each winning 5-digit number. An entire ticket (billete) costs €200, but because this may be too expensive, the tickets are usually sold as tenths (décimos) or parts thereof. The winning number usually means that a lot of people from the same area become a lot richer overnight. Besides the five big prizes there are thousands of smaller prizes shared by people all over the country. In 2011, the top prize was increased to €400,000 per ‘décimo’ from €300,000, with the highest number being 99,999 (before there were no numbers starting with ‘9’). The advertisements for El Gordo are also very famous.
In the days just before Christmas, look out for showings of ‘Els Pastorets’. This is a traditional nativity play where the story of Christmas is re-enacted in various towns around the island in the days immediately before Christmas, performed either by townsfolk or theatre companies. With participating artists of all ages, this is real community event and loved by generations of families.
Christmas Eve or Nochebuena (literally meaning Good Night) or Nit de Nadal in Catalan is one of the most important family gatherings of the year. In the early evening there are often nativity plays or friends may meet for a few drinks before returning home to enjoy a festive meal with the family, often including serrano or iberico ham, shell fish and other tapas, rounded off with typical Christmas sweets such as turrón (nougat made with almonds), polvorones, (crumbly biscuits with almonds and cinnamon and pastissets (flower-shaped little biscuits flavoured with cinnamon and lemon).
Midnight Mass is the main event of the day, when the apocalyptic ‘Cant de la Sibil-la’ may be performed solo ‘a cappella’ by a young choralist in churches around the island. This ancient Gregorian chant dates back to the tenth century in Catalonia and although it became forbidden throughout Europe in the mid 16th century, it was soon restored in the Balearic Islands in 1575. Over time, many different versions evolved which today are enjoying renewed interest. (This year, in Maó, the song is being performed as part of a concert prior to Christmas in the Santa Maria Church.) In contrast, music also pervades on Christmas Eve with ‘Les Caramelles de Nadal’, when everyone joins together to sing these well-loved, traditional folksongs.
While most restaurants are closed during the evening, many bars and clubs open later when it is now common practice for the younger generations to go and party after Mass well into the early hours.
Christmas Day is a national holiday throughout Spain, however rather than being a day of great celebration, its is a more peaceful event when people may go out for a walk or visit relatives before getting together for another large family meal, traditionally at lunchtime. Although today, more families choose to eat out on Christmas Day. Children may receive small gifts on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day from Papá Noel (Father Christmas), however the main day for presents is 6 January, Epiphany, when the Three Kings bring their gifts for the children.
Boxing Day or Sant Esteve (St Stephen’s Day), also referred to as Segundo Día de Navidad, has no religious significance and is not a Public Holiday in Spain, with the exception of Cataluña and in certain years the Baleares, although it is often taken as such as family reunions continue with those they did not see the day before. Again, food plays an important role when it is traditional to eat cannelloni stuffed with meat remaining from the day before. At midday in Maó, there is the traditional swim across the harbour which is aways fun to watch. In 2012, Sant Esteve was not a Public Holiday in Menorca.
New Year Festivities
New Year’s Eve or Noche Vieja (Old Night) and is a big celebration all over Spain with street parties and special events in hotels and clubs everywhere.
During the preceding days, various sporting events are held around the island, including the national sporting tradition of San Silvestre where people of all ages and ability get together to take part in evening races around the towns, some in fancy dress. This year, Alaior will be holding its first San Silvestre on 29 December when four races will take place following a specially designated circuit through the streets .
On the night itself, many restaurants, hotels and bars in towns and villages around the island organise special events to see in the New Year when the twelvechimes of midnight can be counted down in town squares to the accompaniment of music. At midnight it is traditional to eat 12 grapes, one on each stroke of the clock, to bring good luck for the year ahead. The parties, music, singing and dancing then continue in plazas and clubs well into the early hours.
New Year’s Day is a public holiday and generally a low key event as people take it easy after the previous evening’s excesses. The next day it’s business as usual as Menorca prepares for it’s main festive event and the Three Kings’ helpers visit each town to collect the children’s letters for the Kings in anticipation of Reyes or Epiphany on twelfth night, 6 January.
Twelfth Night or Reyes is when the holiday season culminates with the traditional Three Wise Men (Los Reyes Magos) parade on the evening of 5 January as Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior tour the streets of the towns throwing sweets to the children in the assembled crowds, the event varying according to each town. In Maó, for example, the Kings arrive by boat and travel up to the town on decorated floats, the road lined with cheering people and excited children eager to catch the showers of sweets. Once back home, children leave out a shoe in the hope that the Kings will visit them during the night and bring them all sorts of presents if they have been good. Naughty children will find coal in their shoe – sweet, of course…!
The next day is the Feast of Epiphany to celebrate the Three Kings’ arrival in Bethlehem and the most important day of the year for Spanish children, excited to find out what the Kings have left for them. Traditionally, Balthasar is their favourite as he is the one believed to leave the gifts. During the day, the Kings continue their good work and distribute toys and presents to children in hospital. This is very much a family day when more presents are exchanged and another celebratory feast is enjoyed. Only then is the festive period truly over for another year. Business is resumed the next working day, children go back to school and the January sales begin in earnest.