Saturday 5 December 2009

The Forty One Days Of Christmas

I have no idea who this happy couple are, but she insisted on posing while I tried to take the photograph of the Christmas Tree in the Plaza Callao. Christmas is a happy time, and she looks very happy.

There’s an accordionist who sits on a stool in my main shopping street, pretty close to the Metro Entrance, so it’s hard to avoid him, who never plays anything recognisable. Occasionally you might hear the first few bars of something familiar, but just as you think you know that tune he drifts off into something else. “Ave Maria” sort of segues into the “Trish Trash Polka” as if he wanted to combine all the tunes he knows in one discordant melody. So as I walked past him today it was no surprise to hear one tune to the tune of another, if you know what I mean. But he has changed his tunes. Today he was somehow combining “Silent Night” with “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”.

It must be Christmas!

The Ayuntamiento has published a booklet explaining all the events it has planned to give the public over the festive period. It is entitled, “Madrid es Navidad – del 27 de noviembre al 6 de enero”. That’s forty-one days, which is dragging out the festive season a little.

During this time, according to the booklet, Christmas will officially start on the 17th of December with an inauguration event in the Plaza de Oriente, opposite the Royal Palace. There are two weeks of special celebrations on Lavapies and a special celebration on the 27th for Madrid’s main street, Gran Via, which will be one hundred years old next year. There are exhibitions and concerts, religious services and theatre, and circuses seem to be springing up all over town. The Plaza del Torros at las Ventas has been converted, as it is every year, into one very large circus.

So, according to those dates we are well in to the season of goodwill to all men - except accordion players who can’t carry a tune.


The calles, avenidas and paseos of Madrid are arched with streams of twinkling lights. Christmas trees have been constructed all over town. Yes, I wrote “constructed”. Despite the rolling foothills of the Sierra Guadarrama being covered in fir trees, as far as I can tell, there is not one natural Christmas tree in the city. In the Plaza of Colon I watched as men manoeuvring a crane and a hydraulic platform heaved several tons of curved steel sheets into place to form a ten metre high metallic cone, which was then festooned with lights. Now at night it glows a sort of eerie purple.

Colon "Tree" under Construction
The Completed Tree

In the Plaza de Castilla a pyramid of similar height flashes illuminated Pac-man figures. Halfway along Castellana a snow white cone sits seemingly abandoned near an intersection, while Callao boasts a cone festooned with ribbons. Oh, and a synthetic ice rink.

The Callao Tree.

Sol probably has the largest “tree” of them all; perhaps twenty five metres high and clad in transparent wire mesh. In daylight it is an eyesore, quite frankly, but will probably look very festive when its lights are turned on. However, I have been there twice during last week and while everywhere else is bathed in fairylight, this “chicken coop cone” has remained blacked out. It is in fact so large that when the new street lights of the newly renovated Plaza del Sol are switched on a dusk, the “Tree” seems to absorb the light. Researchers into black holes need look no further.

Sol at night. Can you see the "Tree"?

The Sol Conic Chicken Coop.

But despite these fabricated faux firs being perhaps Madrid’s attempt to combat deforestation, there are several hundred real trees on sale in the Christmas Market in the Plaza Mayor. The market is a rather sad affair this year. Perhaps it’s the crisis, but there are only half the number of stalls compared to previous years.

The Christmas Market in The Plaza Mayor

However, the stalls there seem to be doing a brisk trade in fairy lights and decorations, but what most of the stalls sell are figurines for your Belén.

So what’s a Belén, I hear you ask? The word comes from the Spanish name for Bethlehem and is what in England is called a Nativity Scene and, I believe in the US, a crib. The figurines come in all sizes to suit the size of the window you will be using to display them from, and they come in varying degrees of quality and price, ranging from the cheap and chubby to expensive and exquisite. You can buy shepherds and sheep, Marys, Josephs, Wise men and assorted hangers-on plus a whole farmyard of animals.

All you need for your Belén.
 And Caganeres.

So now you are wondering what is a “caganer”? It seems there is a tradition that at least one of the characters in your Belén should be answering a call of nature. In Catalonia, from whence this custom came, it was usually a mischievous young shepherd boy, pants down around his ankles, bottom bared for all to see and a very obvious curled lump of kaka on the ground behind him. However, in this modern age, when we like to make fun of our leaders, the little shepherd boy has been replaced by your iconic figure of choice. On one stall it is possible to buy a caganer representing any Spanish politician or footballer, the Pope, Barak Obama, Tony Blair and many others from about a hundred models. Madrid’s main give away newspaper trumpeted that this year for the first time, caganeres of the president of the Comunidad of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre and Madrid’s Mayor, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón Jiménez would be up for sale. Collector’s items perhaps? Still, it won’t be the first time Spanish politicians have been caught with their pants down.

This seems a strange way to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus and Madrileños are quick to point out the figures’ Catalonian roots. This does not seem to stop them buying them though!

There are also specialist shops that sell Belén figures. Halfway along the Calle Postas, that little alley that leads from the Plaza Mayor to Sol, is a shop that sells some quite beautifully made figures. But at a price! And along the Calle Mayor one can buy exquisite, but small complete Beléns for two or three hundred euros. That’s one expensive doll’s house!

So, Madrid is all set for Christmas. The nation’s largest chain of department stores, El Corte Inglés, is advertising its toy shop with a huge all singing all dancing animated display called “Cortylandia”. Crowds gather to watch its regularly timed choreography. The mariachi band in Sol is playing Christmas Carols, or villancicos, and the wandering jazz band can be seen all over town playing up beat versions of Jingle bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

There’s lots of snow, but its all plastic and hanging from shopping centres. But the ice is real. Early morning temperatures are zero or less. Fog and ice led to an accumulated one hundred and sixty kilometres of traffic jams leading into the city on Thursday. A pile up on the A6 near Las Rozas to the northwest damaged a dozen cars and there were many more accidents on other roads.

The Lights in the Calle de Alcala

The police are manning roadblocks all over town to check for drivers over the alcohol limit. An excess of yuletide spirit in the blood will now get you a hefty fine or incarceration. However, taking a taxi home at three in the morning a few days ago we passed through one of these roadside checks. My taxi was waved through while other cars were pulled in. I was thinking that was right; no taxi driver would dare drive drunk. But then my driver began a rant about how the checks were an infringement of drivers’ rights. I found that quite worrying.

Gran Via - 100 years old next year

But I love Madrid at this time of year. There are festivals, concerts, fireworks as well as all the lights and Christmas Cones, er, I mean “Trees”. But what I love best about this time in Madrid is the subject of my next post. So, slightly premature greetings to one and all and come back in a couple of days to see what it is that makes me want to be here more than anywhere else at this time or the year.


  1. I was amazed at the "cones" all over Madrid, especially the one in Sol. However, I could have sworn that both the one by the Gran Via Metro stop (accross from C/ Fuencarral) and the one in Sol were lit up last Friday night on my walk back to the Hostal from Mary Malones. As always, nice write up and good photos.

  2. Don't know when you took your pic of the "tree" in Sol, but the lights were on last week when I took my little trip down there. I read on the council website that in attempt to save money, they're turning the lights on for only 6 hours a day for most of the Xmas period, I think except 24th, 25th and 1st. They go off at midnight otherwise.

  3. I took my pictures between 7 and 8pm. Maybe they had a fault, but I was there on Tuesday and Wednesday. I'm sure I'll be there again this week. If I am, I will take the pic. I did think it strange that all the other lights wee on but not Sol.