When you think of the holiday season, a lot of things come to mind. There’s the clichés; Santa Claus and his reindeer (obvs), the three wise men with their pretty random gifts, perfectly placed matching baubles on a tree towering over a sea of department store gift-wrapped presents, and a crisp layer of fresh snow with some sprinkling of snowflakes outside. The reality of course is slightly less idyllic as, however good the intentions began, the likelihood is the gift wrapping quality worsened as the wrapper tired of the tape and scissors, it probably isn’t snowing and if it is, it’s going to be the sleet and icy kind which will send you face-planting onto the pavement and (spoiler alert) Santa and the wise men are (probs) made up.
If we’re honest, the Christmas period is ultimately defined by that Mariah Carey song you can’t escape from, overpriced festive jumpers, those awful last-minute shopping apocalyptic scenes, and eating so many roast dinners over two weeks that your jeans button is hanging on for dear life. Or is that my cynical side spilling out? Bah, humbug!
What I do know is that this list of things you associate with the Christmas holidays varies from person to person, and from place to place. Unsurprisingly, our Gibraltarian traditions show a glimpse of our cultural crossings, and the way an amalgamation of influences have come together to create a truly Llanito festive season.
To get a glimpse into everyone’s favourite part of Gibraltar’s Christmas I took to the streets (read: Twitter), and called all my fellow tweeting compatriots to tell me what defined their holidays. The responses were a perfect way for me to actually get into the Christmas spirit as, in case you were wondering, I’m writing this in early November and currently cursing the first mince pies appearing on shop shelves and Mariah’s high notes already following me around.
The general trends of our favourite traditions are what you’d expect from any place, and the obvious start is food. As with much of our culture, the festive menu is an eclectic mix of British and Spanish delicacies. Whereas most of our Christmas dinner will probably be similar to a traditional British roast, our festive snacking tendencies follow our Andalusian neighbours – because nothing says “Christmas is coming” to a Gibraltarian like the smell of castañas toasting while you wait in the border queue. Sweet tooth extraordinaire, The Muscle Bakery, said delicias de almendras were their favourite Christmas tradition, and local food and fitness blogger Fit As Fudge echoed my own festive snack of choice: the polvorón. I can’t get enough of them, and a bag of the scrummy almond treats always seems to find its way into my suitcase on my flight back to university in January in an attempt to prolong the taste of home (though lack of restraint means they usually only last a couple of days).
But wait, I’ve completely skipped past the savoury king of every Llanito kitchen counter come December; not it’s not the turkey, leg of lamb, or even golden spuds – it’s the mighty pata negra. When you think about it, it’s pretty gross that there’s this pig’s leg just hanging about in our homes for the best part of a month, but there’s little that can get taste buds tingling and mouths salivating like the image of the jamón being sliced slither by delicate slither. Just the image of it in my head is making me drool as I type (apologies vegetarians, vegans and non-pork eaters of the world). The curing process can take up to five years, and some households pay upwards of £600 for their prized pig on their countertop. They will of course say it is more than worth it, and argue over which member of the family can make the thinnest cut of melt in your mouth, salty deliciousness.
But enough about the food, well, sort of. Almost any Gibraltarian you speak to will undoubtedly mark our Christmas Eve tradition as one of the best. As the clock strikes midday, we will be rushing out of work to spend the afternoon (often in the sunshine), eating lunch, surrounded by our closest pals and getting pretty plastered. People in Christmas jumpers, pub-crawling in full Santa suits, with friends you see daily or students catching up with friends they haven’t seen since summer. Chatham Counterguard, Ocean Village and any Main Street restaurant full to the brim with people celebrating the holiday cheer, finishing lunch and hopping from bar to bar, then dragging themselves home (hopefully) just about sober enough to continue the party at an evening Christmas dinner with family who have been slaving away in the kitchen all day.
Then comes the actual family Christmas parties, which may not differ all that much from those of our British counterparts (if not perhaps slightly louder), but what does differ is the company. Whereas in other parts of the world people might be coming together for the first time since the last birthday or Easter, or even the previous year’s Christmas, in Gibraltar you’re probably seeing family you see every other day. So it’s your weekly family gathering selfie opportunity, just with a lot more food and some fun paper crowns.
Before I move on from Christmas to our New Year’s Eve activities, a short (enraged) side note: if Michael Kors is ever wondering who their target market is, all they have to do is check out every single Gibraltarian female’s Instagram feed come Christmas Day. The plethora of postings with navy/black/beige tote bags, some variation of a rose gold chunky watch and chain-link bracelets has gone pretty berserk on our little Rock in recent years, and don’t even get me started on the accompanying captions detailing how “lucky” and “spoilt-rotten” their holiday season has been. Please, enough – there are very few people who care what you received on Christmas morning from Santa, and those people can be reached via Whatsapp.
Rant over, but one more side note on the Christmas activities: for those that can roll out of bed down to the beach on Boxing Day, there’s the Llani version of the “Polar Bear Swim”. A tradition of Canadian origins, these swims happen across the globe, usually on New Year’s Day, in sub-zero temperatures, with participants stripping down in the snow to get into water actual polar bears might be cool with (pun intended). Our knock-off version works with what it’s got, but the average 16-degree temperatures are hardly ‘polar’. That being said, I did it one time and wasn’t brave enough to go full dunk, head under the water, but I think that says more about me being a wimp than the in excess of 1000 people who do it every year. So props to them, and props to those ballsy Canadians.
And that brings me to New Year’s Eve, the day of the year we Gibraltarians dress up to the nines to eat dinner at our abuela’s house, to then go out to all the bars we go to every other Friday night, but pay upwards of £60 to do it. If you’re “lucky” you might be hopping across the border and paying double to party in a pretentious club in Marbella, but that’s only if you’re lucky. Jokes aside, New Year’s is famous for failing to meet expectations the world over and though in Gibraltar it’s no different, we still know how to have a good time, and a good laugh too. Anyone in Casemates Square for the big concert last year or watching the GBC coverage of it will remember the New Year being rung in 10 seconds too early, which confused us all no end, and left me faffing about with an already difficult task; eating 12 grapes in as many seconds. Another Spanish-originating tradition, according to superstition each grape is said to bring you luck for each month of the coming year. As such, most Gibraltarians spend the first 12 seconds of the year cramming the fruit into their mouths, trying not to gag and spew juice everywhere through their laughter. And good luck if you didn’t manage to grab the dwindling last supplies of seedless grapes at Morrisons/Eroski, as seeds will only complicate your life and cause spluttering and choking. A close friend even bitterly recounted a time her mother gave her the job of de-seeding grapes for all 18 members of her extended family before midnight (that’s 216 grapes).
As the grapes clog your gullet, then come the fireworks, and if you’re watching from your balcony you’ll do well to not lean over the edge as fireworks whizzing out of your neighbours’ house might just catch you. Other health and safety hazards include the throwing of el trigo out the window, also for good luck, and probably the cause of a few near-miss concussions. Then comes the actual party, and starting your night out at 2:00am is unconventional as it is, but more so is the 45-minute long wait at 6:30am for your majorly average, overpriced full English breakfast to soak up all that Cava. Funnily enough, it’s usually my favourite part of the night/morning, as despite the aching feet and long wait it’s where the best drunken conversations happen (and where the food is at, which is always my priority).
The holidays in Gibraltar are clearly as quirky and full of fun as most of our customs, albeit a bit wacky, and the appeal is not lost on us. The responses I got online even included a local woman who had lived in London for over 40 years, but told me they’d not missed a single Gibraltarian Christmas. If that wasn’t going to get me out of my Grinch-esque depreciation of the (very) early November saturation of festive cheer, I’m not sure what would.