"Instead of the placid ox and ass of Bethlehem, we have for companions the ravening tiger and exotic camel, the furtive jackal and the ponderous elephant" (Evelyn Waugh, A Handful Of Dust)
Christmas in a foreign country is always slightly absurd. Traditions, food, the correct time for opening gifts – everything is turned on its head so thoroughly, you could almost believe that Christmas isn't an English festival.
But Christmas is English, just like Hallowe'en and Guy Fawke's day. What could be more English than roasted meat, boiled vegetables, gravy, silly hats and dodgy jokes? As Orwell wrote, "Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own".
This passage always reminds me of Modbury, Devon and home. Old fashioned? Yes. Stereotyped? Absolutely. But like it or not, that is a major part of the England I grew up in – a place which still has a feeling of continuity which I only rarely sense in Barcelona. If we travel to some of the more remote country towns here in Catalonia, I sometimes get a whiff of that continuity. Cerdanyola, however, has no redeeming features – especially not at this English time of year.
It seems to me that the reason Christmas seems so quintissentially English to me is that most of the 'classic' images of Christmas (except for those odd nativity scenes) are themselves quintissentially English. The snowy village with Victorian streetlamps, the frosty roofs and windows misted up, glowing with warmth against the bitter winter, holly and mistletoe, fights in the pub – all images typical of England. Well, my England anyway. And that's the problem. When you grew up in a town so staid, traditional and olde-worlde picturesque like Modbury, Christmas actually is exactly like an old fashioned Christmas card to the tune of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen'. And Christmas in Tarragona isn't.
Now don't get me wrong – I'm not complaining about the opportunity to spend Christmas with Gemma's family in the family town. I enjoy that. All I'm trying to do is explain how whatever they do, however much fun we have, however many fights they have in the local cerveceria, Christmas for me is English and old fashioned. I'm all for change but I'm really looking forward to next year.
[This post was edited and updated on December 15th 2010]