A Catalan Christmas
By LISA ABEND
IT was the Christmas season in Barcelona, but inside the city hall, a 14th-century palace, a scene from “the Arabian Nights” was playing out. Palm trees and satin cushions had turned the Gothic patio into a desert tent, complete with incense and Middle Eastern music. Pages, clad in pantaloons and velvet-trimmed turbans, led each child to the Moorish throne of the Royal Mailman and the bulging satchel he would use to convey their petitions to the Three Kings. Yes, those Three Kings: the magi in the manger with the frankincense and myrrh. Here in the Mediterranean, the North Pole and the jolly guy in the fur-trimmed suit don’t make much cultural sense. And you have to admit that there’s a certain biblical logic to having the Kings rather than Santa bear gifts.
Like so many things in life — soccer, sex, pigs’ feet with snails — Christmas is better in Barcelona. Not for the Catalans the tinsel, the candy canes, the celebrity reindeer with his blinking nose. No, Christmas in Barcelona is an altogether sleeker affair, whimsical and exotic in equal measure. The lights lining the avenues are more artistic, the parades better choreographed, the cakes more elaborate and the exertions more athletic. (Witness the Christmas day group swim, when hundreds of Barcelonans launch themselves into the chilly Mediterranean.) It’s the time when Barcelona is more truly itself: the tourists are still here, but somehow it seems as if the city has reverted back to its rightful owners. Which means that at Christmastime, the balance between artistry and common sense that so deeply characterizes the Catalan soul is on fine display.
Arriving in Barcelona on Jan. 4, I felt as though I had stepped into a time warp, where the holidays, instead of having passed into recent memory, were still building steam. As in the rest of Spain, Christmas begins on the night of Dec. 24 and doesn’t end until Epiphany — called Reyes — on Jan. 6, when all the gifts arrive. Throughout those two weeks, children are released from school and work schedules are reduced, so, whatever the hour, the city center is alive with locals. There’s shopping to be done, of course, but most people engage in less commercial pursuits: a stroll down the elegant streets of the Eixample to admire the Gaudí-esque lights strung overhead; a stop at a stand in the Barri Gotic for a sack of chestnuts; a visit to a church, whether the soaring Sagrada Familia with its newly completed interior or the bare Santa Maria del Mar in the Born, for a holiday concert.
Canelones are quintessential Christmas food in Catalonia, and I had been told that the only place to eat them was in someone’s home. Fina Navarro, the Fonda’s manager and wife of the chef Carles Gaig, explained: “Traditionally, you eat them on St. Stephen’s Day,” Dec. 26, she said. “Your grandmother would have made a big pot of escudella for Christmas Day,” she added, referring to a chickpea and meat stew, “and she would use the leftover meat to stuff the canelones.” It was hard to imagine even a grandmother making a better version: the tender meat encased in pasta tubes and topped with a creamy béchamel was deeply flavorful but surprisingly light.
The next day, I had a date at the crèche in Sant Jaume Square in the center of Barcelona. In recent years, the Christmas tree, like Santa Claus, has made inroads into Spanish holiday culture. But the Spanish still reserve most of their adornment impulses for Nativity scenes. The one in the square was huge — a diorama, really — with bucolic scenes of peasants leading donkeys and hauling hay.
Barcelona celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings with the pomp of a state visit, and by the time I arrived on the afternoon of Jan. 5, the waterfront was a mob scene. The mayor was there, waiting anxiously on his receiving platform as a tall-masted ship sailed into the harbor. The kings — Gaspar with a flowing white beard and with layers of fur draped over his shoulders; red-haired Melchior with his soaring crown; and dark-skinned Baltasar with his turban — disembarked amid a scrum of paparazzi. After a few speeches about peace on earth, they received the key to the city: one that, the mayor noted in this land of chimneyless apartments (another reason Santa would find it tough in Barcelona), would unlock the doors to every child’s house. A high-pitched roar went up as a mounted guard parted the crowd of thousands. Gaspar, Melchior and Baltasar made their way toward the fleet of Model T’s that would whisk them to the start of the cabalgata, or parade.
I raced along the waterfront and, turning left on the Via Laietana, grabbed a prime viewing spot. It was nearly dark, and the whole city, it seemed, had turned out, with families stuffed onto balconies, and a clutch of Sisters of Mercy passing the wait by snacking on sunflower seeds. A toddler in a bear hat made a break for the street; his parents snatched him back just as the red-coated guards on their black stallions approached. Behind them came floats, though the word hardly does justice to the magical creations processing up the street.
There were dancing angels with illuminated wings, and disco balls suspended from silvery sculptures that cast glittering shards of light on the street. Fantastical birdmen on stilts preceded a swaying dinosaurlike creature, and archers lowered their 15-foot-tall bows so that procrastinators could drop last-minute wish lists into the wire mailboxes attached there. Through it all, elaborately costumed revelers on the floats pelted the crowd with candy; one nun elbowed me out of the way in her quest to get a Starburst. Finally, the Kings themselves rode by, mounted on fine carriages, and behind them, a giant clock, reminding children it was time for bed.
For the rest of us, it was time for dinner. In Spain, what you eat at Christmas when you’re not eating truffle-stuffed turkey and the almond nougat called turrón, is shellfish.
When it was over, it was midnight. I wandered over to the Gran Via, the broad avenue that cuts across the city, to find it lighted festively and full of people happily perusing the offerings at a toy market. Barcelona apartments are small, making it difficult for parents to keep presents hidden until Reyes. So the sensible Catalans devised the very seny solution of holding a market late on the night before the holiday; you can tuck your kids into bed and go shopping without the little ones being any the wiser. Except for a candy stall or two — all oversize ruby lollipops and snaking lengths of lime taffy — the vendors were selling mostly plastic junk. But everyone seemed so pleased to be there that the place felt charming nonetheless.
The next morning, I walked to Escribà, the city’s most famous bakery. It was early, but lines had already formed as people waited to buy the traditional roscón, a ring-shaped cake made from brioche, filled with marzipan or cream, and topped with candied fruit. Each one hides in its eggy innards a dried bean, said to bring good luck — as well as the obligation of paying for the cake — to the finder.
That morning, Christian Escribà himself was there, busily making and decorating one ring after the next. He estimated he would sell 3,000 roscones that day. As a saleswoman tied up each cake, she slipped a paper crown beneath the knot. “My father started adding the crown in 1960, as a way of distinguishing ours from everyone else’s,” Mr. Escribà said. I looked at the crown, which reminded me of things they used to hand out to kids at Burger King to serve essentially the same purpose: marketing, pure and simple. Then I looked at the exquisite cake, with its perfect ripples of cream and jewel-like fruits. Art and commerce, whimsy and pragmatism. Rather than a conundrum, I realized as I stepped into a city waking to one final day of celebration, this was balance.