Sunshine, seafood for dinner and the outdoor market in Granada. That was our last Christmas before Little P came along and our first Christmas away from home. We had talked about going away for Christmas many times but family reaction always put us off the idea. In 2014 we finally decided to spend the entire Christmas period exploring Portugal and Spain. Like anyone who goes away for Christmas I was a little anxious about the experience. Would I miss family, friends and all the traditions that happen without fail every year? The truth is I felt very much in need of a different Christmas. It was all becoming a bit too repetitive. The same parties, the same music, the same TV shows, the same shopping panic and the same food. So we headed off for our adventure at the start of December. Just when ‘Fairytale of New York’ was blasting through every shopping centre in Ireland we landed in the bright and sunny Portela airport in Lisbon.
We spent out first evening eating roasted chestnuts and walking the streets of Lisbon. Lisbon is a city with style and for Christmas it was certainly decorated with style. In the main tourist areas there were sparkly trees, an ice rink and a giant Santa Claus projected onto buildings. But other parts of the city were more low key and reminded me of Christmas visits to Dublin as a child. The streets and shops were decorated with holly, wreaths, ribbons and lights. And cribs, there were so many cribs. In Portugal and Spain Christmas is far more obvious as a religious festival. The nativity or the ‘Belén’ is at the centre of celebrations and in every small village, town or major city we visited there were magnificent ‘Belén’ displays. Entire replicas of Bethlehem were recreated with minute attention to detail. We spent hours walking around them fascinated at miniature shepherds with tiny flocks of sheep, diminutive palm trees and market stalls full of minuscule vegetables. Entry was free but visitors left a donation for charity. They were all packed to the rafters with abuelos and niños in equal measure.
By Christmas week we had moved on to Spain and the celebrations were really beginning. There were lots of outdoor markets, street entertainment and fairground rides. Just like in Ireland the Spanish Christmas is all about family and everywhere we went we saw multi generational family groups enjoying meals, shopping or just strolling about. Strolling about in the dry warm weather was one of the best bits about the whole trip! In Spain Christmas Eve is the day for house visits and a big family dinner so the shops and restaurants all closed early. But Christmas Day is for getting out and about. We spent Christmas Day in Granada, home to the Moorish palace ‘The Alhambra’. The squares and streets were buzzing with people wishing each other ‘Feliz Navidad’. For Christmas dinner we had a deliciously creamy seafood risotto in a restaurant overlooking the winding streets that lead to the Alhambra. Then, on Stephens Day we explored the palace itself and it was an unforgettable experience.
Although business appeared to go on as normal the Christmas celebrations last well into January in both Spain and Portugal. The Feast of the Epiphany is even more of an event than Christmas Day. The Magi come to visit every town and village and bring presents for all the children. We were in Almeria for this and there was a huge street carnival with music and dancing. At one end of the street on a huge stage sat the three kings. The children queued up to see them and receive their gifts. The children were wildly excited and the atmosphere was fantastic.
Over the four weeks we also visited Seville, Gibraltar, Málaga, Cádiz and spent a week on the beach in Southern Portugal. The weather was like a good Irish summer, we met mostly locals and we spent a fraction of what we would normally spend on Christmas at home.
I firmly believe that Christmas in another country is something that everyone should experience at least once in life. It gives a real insight into another culture and great ideas for bringing something different to Christmas at home. In Portugal there was a nationwide recycling awareness event while we were there. All homes, business and towns were encouraged to use only Christmas decorations that had been created from recycled materials. So this year I’ve taken some of the ideas I saw there to make decorations for our home. The holiday also reminded me of my own childhood Christmases and the basics of simple family time. Christmas doesn’t have to be about big presents, spending lots of money or having fancy decorations. The best Christmas is about having fun with your favourite people and showing some simple kindness to those around you. That is what I saw in abundance during our Iberian Christmas.
So if you’ve been thinking about going away for a Christmas I’d highly recommend it. No matter where you may decide to go. Having a different Christmas is like a breath of fresh air. And of course, it makes you appreciate Christmas at home all the more!