The Weekend Before Christmas

One week before Christmas and the town was buzzing.

After a ridiculously early drive to Stansted through freezing fog and sleet we arrived in a much warmer Jerez – warm enough to take lunch outside. Bliss. Then consternation, as we failed to secure a table reservation for that evening in a succession of restaurants. It was zambomba weekend and everywhere, but everywhere, was full. ( See Zambomba! ) Personal engagement was called for, so we set out to call on a number of establishments where we were known and able, possibly, to persuade the management that we would just fit in, we were only two people, we wouldn’t take up much room. Fortunately, it worked.

The town was beautifully dressed, as always ( see December – Advent ) with the usual Christmas market in Arenal augmented this year with a pop-up ice rink. At seven thirty in the evening only children were skating, aside from one brave but ungainly Dad, complete with Christmas pullover and ear-muffs. His sole purpose seemed to be to act as a target for his two young sons (and their friends) to plummet into. At a bar in the same square the Canasta lady was handing out free sherry as a small band played along to a zambomba drum. Groups of people roamed around carrying tambourines looking for zambomba to join and the atmosphere was jolly, but the numbers really increased on Saturday.

People come into town this weekend for the zambomba and to celebrate in groups with friends. This is different to the celebrations over Christmas itself, which is primarily a religious and family based festival here.  Large parties of diners filled the restaurants and there were competing zambomba groups in Plateros (which can’t have been good for the residents – one friend told me that they were still going strong after midnight, when it was very cold).

Music is always an important part of celebration in this town, Aside from the zambomba the weekend saw formal performances in the Cloisters (a choral concert) and the Theatre and, on Sunday morning, a concert by the town band. This institution was defunct for a time but has now been resuscitated and it performed  wonderfully well on the ornate antique bandstand in Plaza del Banco. We arrived early and sat at one of the cafes in the warming sun, first with coffees, then with amontillado. By the time the band began a programme of Bach, Mozart, Irving Berlin and a selection of Christmas carols, the square was tightly packed with people. During the final medley the conductor turned around and directed the audience, Last-Night-of-the-Proms style.

Other local towns have their own traditions, though zambomba is peculiar to Jerez. In Arcos de la Frontera, ( see Arcos ), for example, Saturday night saw a living nativity, with residents dressed as folk from ancient Judea. They, complete with Holy Family, shepherds with flocks and thousands of onlookers, process around the narrow, torchlight streets of the walled hill-top town.  This ends in Plaza Cabildo, which has been transformed for the night into Bethlehem, with the inn, the stable, a carpenter’s shop, asses, goats and cattle. The streets are packed with spectators if the photos sent to me by a friend are anything to go by.

It is interesting that the towns and villages of Southern Spain, with their mixed racial, cultural and religious history, are places in modern Europe where people have no qualms about dressing up as Arabs and Jews while celebrating their old Christian traditions.  The Christians come out on top, it’s true, this is Christmas after all, but everyone has a place. It’s inclusive, there is no segregation of cultures here, everyone’s heritage is mixed. Of course, on 6th January, Los Tres Reyes, Melchior, Baltazar and Gaspar, come to town and there are more celebrations. But that’s another story.

If you enjoy reading about December in Southern Spain you might also enjoy            Christmas Dancing in the Streets

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