Christmas Day in bygone years
Christmas in Menorca just six or seven decades ago was a much more simple and austere affair. Families had very little disposable income, many totally dependent on farming where the ancient customs of farmers were firmly entrenched.
The Christmas celebrations marked the end of the first stage of the farming cycle, which began on San Miguel Day, 29 September, when the farms or ‘llocs’ would hire both ‘missatges’ (low paid workers) and ‘jornaleros’ (day labourers) either for the whole year or just for the planting period which finished on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena), known to Menorcan people as Nit de Nadal or ‘Dissabte de Nadal’ (Christmas Saturday), the word ‘Dissabte’ often used to refer to the eve of a fiesta.
The period between 29 September to 24 December was known amongst country people as ‘Sant Miguel a Nadal’, a season of hard work when the land was ploughed. On 24 December, the farmers punctually paid all workers their wages in cash as well as gave other payments in kind such as a hamper with a large loaf of bread and quarter of a lamb, a tradition which still carries on today.
All around the island, the main fiesta day was on 25 December and celebrated with family, as the popular old saying illustrates, ‘Per Nadal, cada ovella a seu coral’ (at Christmas, every sheep to its home). Christmas Eve was not celebrated and is a relatively new custom in Menorca. However, families did attend ‘La Misa del Gallo’ or ‘Missa del Gall’ (Midnight Mass) on 24 December with great solemnity. After Mass on Christmas Day, games would be played to keep the children entertained before the main celebratory meal at lunchtime. One particular custom was for family members to give children some money in a Christmas Box on Christmas Day, known as ‘diners d’anous’, in return for the child reciting a short poem relating to Christmas. Many families still observe this tradition today and primary schools teach children Christmas poems to perform at family gatherings.
The Christmas meal
Throughout the centuries, Christmas in Menorca is all about food, family and friends. According to their means, the typical menu of bygone years would be a festive broth or ‘Brou de Nadal’, followed by roasted meat and then an assortment of delicious sweets and cakes made with almonds.
This Christmas soup was made with either chicken or beef stock and served with root vegetables, pasta and perhaps meatballs. Today, this festive soup is made with special shell shaped pasta known as ‘Galets de Nadal’ and has become part of traditional Catalan Christmas cuisine. The Galets de Nadal are stuffed with black and white sausage spiced with peppers and added to a rich broth made from meat stock, cabbage, potato, garbanzo beans, onions, leeks, celery, carrot and garlic. Also known as ‘Escudella i Carn d’Olla’, this hearty soup/stew is often served on Boxing Day, San Esteve.
Popular choices for the main course included ‘Porçella Rostida’ (roast suckling pig) and ‘Be es Forn’ (roast lamb) or perhaps roast capon with fresh seasonal vegetables, all locally produced on nearby farms. Although available today, turkey has not become widespread with many Menorcas opting for prepared joints of meat stuffed with various fillings of dried fruits and nuts in addition to traditional roasts. Fish and shellfish are also often served, something that was practically unknown on the Christmas tables years ago. Going out for Christmas lunch was unheard of, even just a few decades ago.
A typical dessert would be ‘Cuscussó, (an ancient recipe of Moorish origins made with bread crumbs, chopped almonds, honey, sugar, butter, cinnamon and grated lemon rind), as well as ‘Turrón’ (nougat with almonds) and other sweet cakes. In fact, Menorca has a long tradition in making turrón and some pastry cooks won important prizes at the end of the XIX century for the quality of their products. Today, there are all different types of nougat available made with ground, chopped or whole almonds according to preference, a selection often being served for dessert together with other little cakes topped with meringue, caramel and chocolate and accompanied by Cava.
Other Menorcan Christmas classics are ‘Polvorones’ and ‘Pastissets’. A Spanish Christmas classic, polvorones are a soft and very crumbly shortbread style biscuit make with flour, ground almonds, butter and sugar with a light cinnamon flavour. The name ‘polvorón’ is based on the fact they crumble very easily. Pastissets are flower-shaped little biscuits, made with sugar, egg yolk, flour and butter and flavoured with cinnamon, lemon and almonds, as required, dusted in icing sugar, making them white on the outside and yellow inside. Traditionally, there were flowers with seven petals (the name means ‘pastis’ as in paste and ‘set’ as in seven in Catalan), but these days they also have five or six.
All the leftovers would then be used up on 26 December, St Stephen’s Day or Fiesta de Sant Esteve, in dishes such as cannelloni and Escudella i Carn d’Olla.
Other Christmas traditions, old and new
Nativity Scenes: In Menorca, as in other catholic countries, the nativity scene or crib is a classic tradition. The quality of the figures and animals would vary accordingly to the purse of the family. Many people made their own little figures hand crafted out of wood, with perhaps animals made from painted clay withx nails for legs and sheds made of cardboard and cork. Today this traditional is preserved and still very popular in many homes with people enjoy making cribs of great beauty, displayed in churches, town halls and even in private homes. One house, in Mercadal, sets up a really impressive nativity scene with large figures up to 50cm tall, electric lights and a waterfall which is on show for anyone to see. Christmas trees, both real and artificial, are becoming popular as an additional decoration but have not replaced the nativity crib as the focal point.
One unusual and some think distasteful tradition, which originates from the 19th century in Catalonia, is to include the ‘caganer’ in the nativity crib. This is a little porcelain gnome-live figure with his trousers down who can be seen defecating somewhere within the nativity scene. While children enjoying looking for this out of place character amongst the more traditional figures, his significance stems from a belief that his ‘deposit’ symbolically fertilised the crib ensuring its presence the following year and with it the health and peace of mind of the crib maker or ‘pessebre’ and the joy and happiness of Christmas by the hearth. Placing the figure in the crib brought good luck and not doing so brought adversity.
Some towns hold a special event for ‘belenes’ or ‘betlems’ in Catalan (nativity cribs) where individuals have been invited to enter their nativity scenes into a competition. These are then on display in their homes for the public and judges to visit at set times on the days leading up to Christmas and a prize is awarded to the winner.
Another tradition which has enjoyed a revival is the making of ‘neules de Navidad’, Christmas paper filigrees which are hung from roofs and arched ceilings in some churches, included Ciutadella cathedral.
Tió de Nadal (Christmas Log) is a character in Catalan mythology and a widespread Christmas tradition, also familiarly known’s as Caga Tió (‘Poo Log’) From 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Tió de Nadal can be found in many Catalan homes during the holiday season, a tradition which is also observed in some Menorcan homes. Originally consisting of a simple hollow log of about 30cm, more recently the Tió has come to stand up on two or four little stick legs with a broad smiling face painted on the higher of the two ends, enhanced by a little traditional red Catalan hat, a ‘barretina’ and a nose. Each day, the Tió is given something to ‘eat’ and each night is covered with a red blanket so he will not get cold.
On either Christmas Eve or Day, depending on the particular household, the now fully grown Tió is placed partly in the fireplace or on the floor with his blanket and is ordered to ‘poo’. To make him do so he is beaten with sticks, while chanting the classic songs of Tió de Nadal. The Tió then drops small gifts of turrón (nougat), nuts, dried fruit and little toys until nothing is left, when it may drop a herring or garlic bulb. He does not drop larger objects, as these are considered to be brought by the Three Kings, and they tend to be communal rather than individual gifts, shared by everyone present. Traditionally, while everyone eats or plays with Caga Tió’s gifts, he is burned for warmth…!
Dia de los Santos Inocentes: Similar to April Fools Day in the UK, 28 December is an opportunity for people to play practical jokes on friends and family and generally get away with doing silly things. Newspapers and TV stations also run spoof stories.
In fact, Dia de los Santos Inocentes – Day of the Holy Innocents dates back to a religious holiday named in honor of the young children who were slaughtered by order of King Herod around the time of Jesus’ birth. These young victims were called Santos Inocentes or ‘Holy Innocents’ because they were too young and innocent to have committed any sins.
Although the religious aspect is almost forgotten and has been combined with winter festivities of pagan origin, these harmless practical jokes are still referred to today as ‘inocentadas’.
New Year’s Eve (Noche Vieja / Nit de Cap d’Any)
Whether in a restaurant or at home, it is customary to celebrate the end of the old year with a special dinner with friends and, like everywhere else around the world, chilled bottles of Champagne or Cava are popped at midnight. In Menorca, as in the rest of Spain, it is also traditional to eat twelve grapes on each stroke of midnight as the New Year approaches. Instead of counting down the last ten seconds until the clock strikes midnight, the twelve bell chimes are counted as one grape is eaten.
Probably dating back to the 19th century, this is considered to bring good luck, but only if all twelve grapes are eaten in time, each one representing a month’s good fortune for the coming year. Not as easy as it sounds. Seedless grapes are not common in Menorca and so many grapes are pre-prepared or bought deseeded and presented in a small glass flute, the last one often difficult to dislodge at the bottom. Only then does everyone wish each other Happy New Year, Feliz Año or Bon Any with a kiss and a hug and open party packs with poppers, funny hats, plastic noses, garlands and streamers, wearing them if they are out in town where music and dancing often take place in the main squares until early hours.
Another popular good luck tradition is to wear something red on New Year’s Eve, in particular underwear…so now you know…!
Feast of the Three Kings (Los Reyes Magos)
Christmas for children in Spain really falls on the 6 January (Epiphany or twelfth night) with the arrival of the Three Kings (Los Reyes Magos). Although today children may have a few small gifts on Christmas Day, their main ones are opened at Epiphany with little children believing that these are brought to them by the Kings, but only if they’ve been good. They write letters to the Kings asking for toys and games which are usually collected by the King’s helpers a few days beforehand.
The evening of Epiphany, 5 January, it is traditional for three men to dress up as the Kings and tour each town in a colourful procession, scattering sweets to all the children who eagerly run after them. That night they leave out their shoes to be filled with presents, but if a child has been naughty, the Kings will leave them pieces of coal (carbones) instead – but no child really behaves so badly to receive only coal! These days it is usual to leave at least one piece of coal made out of sugar among the presents! The shoes may be left in doorways, windowsills or balconies where the Kings can find them easily. In return, gifts are often left by children for the Kings, such as a brandy or wine for each King and straw, fruit and sometimes a bucket of water for the camels that bring the Kings! The next morning the children excitedly find their presents inside and around their shoes. Reyes, or the Day of the Kings, is traditionally a time for families to get together and indulge in yet another feast, which often includes a special cake decorated with a crown or little figurines of the Kings. The following day, regardless of whether the sixth falls on a weekend, it’s back to work or school for everyone.