There is a tendency in many cases where, as time passes and older generations move on, customs slowly pass on with them. The Catalan Bay community does not subscribe to that idea, and so important and joyful events started by the village’s forefathers are not allowed to die off. Hence, Christmastime is one to celebrate to the full, very importantly ‘as a community’ and not just individually, a practice not so prevalent in Gibraltar’s other neighbourhoods these days…
“Father Christmas is coming!” you’ll hear a grown up exclaim, and all the village’s children assemble in the Catalan Bay Social Club in anxious anticipation. “There he is!” another resident shouts from outside the club as Santa winds his way down Conchita Street, Ho! Ho! Ho!-ing and ringing his bell. That’s the unique way the festivities get started at Catalan Bay, ‘Village People’ spokesman, Johnny Walker informs me.
“That’s right, it’s very well organised to the point where the children’s parents or guardians must hand in presents the previous morning before his arrival and must all be reasonably equal in size and cost so as not to upset kids or parents.” Johnny says, “Every head of the family must be a Catalan Bay Social Club member and pay a yearly subscription. The kids then enjoy a lovely party and have a great time.”
Another fun-filled event is the Christmas draw at the social club. The old traditional drum which turns manually is dusted and put on display – before that a grid on a board is put up at the club with a thousand numbers and members make their choice until all the numbers are taken: food hampers, other goodies and small electrical appliances are the prizes on offer. “On the night, although we have a PA system, the callers must shout out the numbers as was done in the past when there were no mics. Three individuals take it in turn to do the calling, which can last a few hours, so they end up pretty hoarse! As the evening progresses and throats tire, you will get members shouting out, “Que numero dijiste que no me entero (what was that number, I didn’t get that)?” It turns out to be a very enjoyable night as afterwards drinking and singing, accompanied by guitar playing continues till the early hours. The Christmas spirit is now in full swing with all the villancicos and other Christmas tunes being sung in the club. Revellers make their way through the village alleyways singing their hearts out: Johnny says, “El ‘Kiko’ is the leader, our guitar player who’s a very funny guy!”
Christian Ferrary is presently Catalan Bay President – formerly known as the ‘Headman’ or ‘Alcalde’. During Christmas he’s called upon once or twice during the celebrations to say a few words. Significantly, townsfolk are not allowed to take part in any of the celebrations, again sticking to tradition, keeping the whole affair strictly to Catalan Bay convention.
Faithful to the ways of the past, the coloured lights stretched across the waterfront are lit adding to the yuletide atmosphere and the Christmas ambiente is slowly raised in the village as ‘the day’ gets closer. Midnight Mass, or Misa de Gallo is a big event on the eve of Christmas Day and that’s when singing in the village comes into its own. Music teacher Mrs Lopez conducts her choir at the full to capacity Lady of Sorrows church and treats the congregation to an appropriate and delightful performance for a night of Christian celebration. After the service more music and chat continue on the ramp outside the church. Later, doors in the village homes are left open and residents pop in from home to home and treated to drinks, polvorones and other Xmas delights… “Everyone is pretty tired after that but come Christmas Day many of us, the men especially, stand by the beach walls chatting and having a drink whilst the women get Christmas lunch ready. Boxing Day is next and that’s an important one…The Polar Bear Swim, first started by local resident Louis Posso and Caleta Hotel Manager at the time, Jimmy Valarino. It’s become a big event with over a thousand swimmers or dippers taking part. Brandy and mince pies are provided by the Caleta and my job is to take charge, stand in the sea facing the crowd and at exactly twelve noon blow the whistle and wave my flag signalling the start. A couple of minutes to midday the swimmers start chanting ‘Johnny! Johnny!’ but I wait till it’s exactly twelve noon.” It’s true the event has become bigger and bigger each year and it makes for good business for the bars and restaurants, Johnny confirms.
Christmas fun continues at Catalan Bay on the last day of the year, but not before another fun night a couple of days earlier: The Sherry Party, where not very much sherry is consumed at all! “Well it’s tradition again and that’s what it’s called. Food is delivered to the club from some restaurant or other, except for a big paella and potato or tuna salad prepared by the women here. Leftover food is consumed the next morning in what we call gavioteando scene, when the seagulls have a feast!” On the Sherry Party night there is an open bar and everyone has a great time. Finally, on New Year’s Eve Villancicos are played loudly from music systems in the homes, champagne bottles are popped when midnight arrives, and again visiting from home to home and drinking continues – no invitations – you just come by. Meanwhile a well organised fireworks display set on racks on the beach is on the go, with ships close by in the bay blasting their horns in reply. Entertainment is supplied by Ricky and his karaoke, whilst Avelino and Joe supply the cabaret imitating Tom Jones or someone else ending the festivities at some unearthly hour on the 1st January as the happy and joyful yuletide events – sadly for some – come to a close for yet another year.
Evidently Catalan Bay residents make sure tradition doesn’t die and what’s organised every year during Las Pascuas is proof of that. It’s called, true community spirit and not letting go of something which has been the Christmas tradition in this little corner of the Rock for decades, whilst now practically non-existent in other neighbourhoods around Gibraltar.
It’s Christmastime at Catalan Bay and the Caletenos are keeping a genuine and happy custom alive. Long may it continue, and happy festivities to all!