I’ve never found Christmas the easiest of times. Somehow, no matter how organised I’ve been, somehow I’ve always ended up dashing to Woolies at 4.55pm on Christmas Eve for emergency cards, stocking fillers or pick ‘n’ mix (because Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without enough chocolates to keep the dental service in practice for the next twelve months).
However, being in a new country spurred me into super-organisation. When I discovered Spain doesn’t do Christmas cards (I know!), I made my own (only to discover that Spain doesn’t really do receiving Christmas cards either. My cotton-wool snowmen and glittery greetings were met with stunned silence and then questions about how much Rioja I was drinking). Presents were wrapped ready for all three days. Yup, three. We have friends from Eastern Europe who celebrate on Christmas Eve, our expat pals on the proper day, and then the Spanish on Three Kings’ Day (twelve days after Christmas - trust the Spanish to be late). I even travelled one hour on the train to the only English-brand shop I could find which stocked sage and onion stuffing and Christmas pudding. It was going to be perfect. I went to bed early on Christmas Eve, eagerly anticipating Christmas in Madrid and feeling as excited as when I was a little girl.
And just like when I was a little girl, I found I couldn’t sleep. Bang on the stroke of midnight, the convent opposite opened its doors - and its bells. For ten minutes, the sky was filled with ding-dang-dong - with the occasional bong thrown in for good measure - to celebrate the nativity. Then, when the clangs died down, we heard the chatter and laughter of everyone going to Mass. “Merry Christmas,” said Ged. “Shut up,” I answered, snuggling into my pillow. One hour later I was awake again - by the chatter and laughter of everyone leaving Mass, with car horns taking the place of the bells. This had never happened in the UK.
By the morning my spirit of goodwill and joy to all men and Midnight Mass-goers had returned - probably helped by the glass of cold cava and smoked salmon blinis we had prepared. We opened presents, tucked into chocolate far too early in the morning, phoned family, played games . . . everything we had done in the UK, although it was frankly weird to turn on the TV and not see Dorothy and Toto leaving Kansas and we were at a loss for what to do at 3pm instead of hiding from the Queen’s speech.
Continuing to sip the cava, we began preparing lunch, peeling and chopping a mountain of vegetables (minus sprouts. There are some traditions that simply have to be avoided at the first chance possible) while listening to Shakin’ Stevens, Band Aid, Slade, and all the old favourites that we had - mercifully - been spared for the previous two months. In the distance we could see the sun glinting off the snow-topped mountains. It was all perfect.
Too perfect. Thirty minutes after I’d been transported to a Christmas worthy of The Waltons, I heard a horrendous crash followed by a string of expletives. Rushing into the kitchen I saw Ged, holding the turkey, staring at a black hole where the oven door had once been. The door was on the floor. Or rather, all the pieces that had once made the door were on the floor. The safety glass, which had looked loose for a little while, had finally given up all efforts to hold on and fallen and shattered - just like our dreams for a traditional Christmas lunch.
After sweeping up the glass and throwing accusations at each other (“you were supposed to get it fixed” “you had more time than me” “I have to do everything”, you get the picture), our Christmas had descended into chaos again. Only this time without a trusty Woolies to help out.
In situations like this there’s not much you can do, except open another bottle of cava and search through the cupboards for anything not remotely oven-based to eat. “Aaah,” said Ged, finally. “I know what to do.”
So, while all our loved ones settled down to turkey, stuffing and sprouts, we had . . . paella, or rather Christmas Surprise Paella (the surprise being a distinct lack of prawns, rabbit and chicken and in their place rather a lot of turkey along with a side dish of sage ‘n’ onion stuffing at my insistence) followed by Christmas pudding generously doused with Spanish brandy.
“It’s a metaphor for our lives,” I announced. “Spain meets Britain. It could be a new tradition.”
“Or we could get the oven fixed for next year,” answered Ged.
Reluctantly I agreed. Which is why this year, we’ll be celebrating like everyone else - with our new oven door and earplugs to block out the bells. But we’ve got a packet of rice in, just in case.