Monday 28 December 2009

Lucky Thirteen

By Richard Morley,

Well, we are approaching the end of another year. It hardly seems a whole decade since we were worrying about the Y2K meltdown and whether the world would end.

It didn’t and the world kept on spinning.

But it is spinning a little slower than it was.

Astronomers do not measure the earth’s rotation against any clock, but against the sun. According to them one revolution is known as a solar day and on average this lasts 86,400 seconds.

Or it did. Now it takes a little longer.

This is nothing new. Way back in 1895 an American astronomer, Simon Newcomb worked all this out and published his findings in a book called "Tables of the Motion of the Earth on its Axis and Around the Sun". Despite not having the very accurate atomic measuring equipment that we have today, his work was pretty good for its time. These days of course scientist can measure time down to the squillionth of a second and the people at the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) have news for us.

2010 will be a little late in arriving!

Now I hear you asking, “What the heck has this got to with A blog about Spain?”

You could also ask, “What effect will this delay in time have on the fruterías, the fruit sellers, of the country?”

It’s all to do with the chiming of a clock and the eating of grapes.

At midnight on the 31st of December tens of thousands of people will gather in the Plaza Del Sol. They will be joined via television and radio by the rest of the country, who sensibly did not come to the Plaza Del Sol. I went one year and while it was great fun, but because of the crush I didn’t move off the same spot of pavement for four and a half hours. We were in Sol because it is the centre of Spain and the clock on the top of the offices of the Comunidad de Madrid is Spain’s Big Ben, Sol is Spain’s Time’s Square. It marks the official change of the year and the chimes of its bell, transmitted all over Spain, will mark the countdown into a new decade.

For each chime of the bell the Spanish will eat one grape. To eat these twelve grapes in the time it takes the midnight hour to chime is considered auspicious for the new year. (Apparently ladies are meant to wear red underwear at that time for the same reason, but I am writing about a more public display of superstition!)

Apparently this custom came about in the 1930s when, following a bumper grape harvest, a clever marketing man came up with this strategy to sell off the surplus grapes. Now the profits are made by street vendors who buy a bunch of grapes having, let’s say, two hundred small seedless grapes to the kilo, for less than a euro and sell them in packets of twelve for one euro a packet. That’s a pretty good mark up. And a pretty good income when you consider those tens of thousands gathered in Sol!

But this year might catch them out.

Thanks to the scientists at the IERS and IUGG 2009 will have a couple of “leap seconds” added to it, meaning 2010 will be later in arriving. For an accurate countdown into the new year the clock in Sol will actually chime thirteen times and the grape eaters will have to eat thirteen pieces of fruit to assure good luck for the forthcoming year.

So, whether you are foolhardy enough to venture into Sol for the New Year celebrations, or are watching it on TV, make sure you have an extra grape ready. Thirteen for good luck. That makes a change!

And I hope someone has told the Chinese street vendors of Madrid.

On another topic entirely, today is the La Día de los Inocentes. It commemorates in the catholic calendar the day that King Herod, in his desperate search for the infant Jesus, had all the newborns put to death.

Strangely, to the Spanish this day is the equivalent of the British and American April the first, All Fools Day, or the French Jour de Poisson. A day for playing tricks on your friends. It’s one of those little cultural differences I love about Spain. Of course, I would never stoop so low!


  1. You bugger! You got me well and truly on that one! you wait 'til I see you.


  2. I'm going to collect up that extra 13th grape from everyone in Sol and feed them to you all at once, to get our own back for your little trick!