This year we settled down for Christmas and New Year in Tarifa, just a 30 minute drive from Gibraltar. Tarifa is a water sports haven for windsurfers, kite surfers and just plain old-school surfers. It is coolness personified.
A beautiful 12km stretch of sand makes up a mixture of sand dunes and rugged coast line, with a back drop of green fields, big rock edifices, topped with white windmills. The mixture of natures’ best and mans’ ingenuity makes for a glorious vista that never fails to raise a smile. It is the perfect backdrop to celebrate Christmas.
Preparations for the big day started long before we arrived at Tarifa. Secret discussions, fake arguments and early dog walks were all tactics used to sneak away presents and keep the myth alive for our kids.
You see, we have two believers who are unwavering in their certainty that old St Nick will find them, wherever they are, and deliver the goods, as per usual. In the past our kids have always been spoilt; Christmas being a time of excess. Clearly due to our current circumstances, we had to explain that Mr Claus will be very aware of the space issues we face as a family and will probably take this into account when delivering his said goods this year. Never before has the pressure to get the balance right, been so important.
Secret Christmas shopping hit a peak when we arrived at Gibraltar. With military precision Chris and I divided the tasks, ran distractions for the kids and generally acted underhanded to ensure toys were purchased, wrapped and hidden without Jonah and Lola’s knowledge. As you can imagine, heated discussions, real arguments and a dog walked to within an inch of his life ate away at any sense of Christmas joy (Not Chris’s best forte at the best of times anyway).
It doesn’t help that Chris’s idea of secret shopping for me consists of asking my thoughts on a particular product/item and then running back to purchase it with the subtlety of a brick. Every year I feign surprise, which he seems to accept as sign of his brilliance. I do wonder if he will ever listen to my thousands of hints I make throughout the year. Either he doesn’t listen or he enjoys ignoring me. He has adopted his own tradition. I pray that one year Chris may surprise me with a surprise. Now that would be something!
Having secured all the presents for the kids, and avoiding a divorce by the skin of our teeth, the next part of the mission was to wrap and hide them. With space in our campervan at a premium, this task required the skills of Paul Daniels. After a complete reshuffle, we realised it just wasn’t achievable. The only thing for it was to dump all of Chris’s clothes to free up space. Explaining our predicament over a beer at the bar, our saviour came in the form of Pepe, the campsite owner, who kindly offered us free use of his garage. Bingo! Presents were hidden, Chris’s clothes were saved. Now we could start to enjoy the festive build-up…
But that is rather hard to do in Spain – because you first have to figure out what they are celebrating and when! It’s all a bit hicklety picklety. Although they seem to celebrate the 25th, they don’t open presents until the 6th January when they celebrate the three Kings.
Looking around frantically for anything that we could take the kids to during the lead up to Christmas, we found a nativity festival in the centre of Tarifa on the 19th December. We agreed to dress up and make this our ‘special big night out’.
Walking through the entrance of the walled old town, we were confronted with narrow streets bedecked in Christmas lights and decorations, busy shops and bars and a trail down to the medieval fort, where the locals had set up a tour through the nativity story. This was a wondrous affair, with adults and children dressed up as biblical figures and little animal enclosures filled with sheep, goats, cows, donkeys and in the words of our campsite host Pepe ‘ little porks’. There was a real buzz in the air and even Chris’s usual Grinch-like spirits lifted.
As we walked through the maze of cobbled white-washed streets we chanced upon a display of handmade nativity scenes inside an old church hall. Each miniature scene was lovingly carved with great detail and placed in a display box behind a big black curtain. As we reached the eighth box and marvelled at the intricate detail of Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem, someone farted. The look on the face of the organiser as 12 people threw open the black curtains and scarpered in every direction was as if she had seen the Virgin Mary herself.
The evening was topped off with a visit to a Tapas Bar. This was our first time as a family to try tapas, and as novices we ordered dish after dish. ‘No’ was the firm response from the waitress as I tried to order a third bowl of patata bravas.
Our naivety is a recurring theme for Chris and I, remembering our visit to china town in New York, where the waitress point blank refused to take any more orders from us with the wise words ‘You no good, you belly to big eyes to round, no more food’. As it turns out both waitresses were right – we ordered too much food, but it was delicious on both occasions and afforded us a great end to a great night.
Despite a lovely festive evening, we returned to a van that looked anything but Christmassy. I was determined to make ‘Colin’ look more merrier.
For me, one of the best parts of Christmas is putting up the Christmas tree. I love nothing more than selecting a real tree and spending hour’s strategically placing baubles, fairy lights and little homemade treasures on each branch. The satisfaction of a well-appointed tree taking pride of place in the living room fills me with joy. The warm glow of the lights is what brings Christmas alive and sets the tone for the days and weeks leading up to Christmas day. This year was always going to be different and the very thought of no tree filled me with dread.
Chris was adamant, in his best Grinch impression yet, that there would be no room in ‘Colin’ for a tree of any sort, not even a dashboard mounted one from the local Chinese bargain store. The best he offered was a tree shaped car freshener hanging from the rear view mirror. I could not argue with his logic – There was no room for a tree – but I was never going to let the Grinch win.
Knowing Lidl was just a few miles away, I was able to persuade Chris that we may be able to pick up some last minute goodies for the ‘sweetie box’. I love Lidl mainly because of the large bins of things you don’t need at a price you can’t refuse. It was in one of these that I found 10 metres of Christmas lighting (no surprises there). Convincing Chris that this could be the best compromise yet, he relented, still unconvinced, and we left with grand plans to adorn ‘Colin’ in Christmas lights.
My vision of ‘Colin’ flashing and twinkling with Christmas joy were quickly quelled when it became obvious fixing the light to the exterior of ‘Colin’, without devaluing him or beheading one of us, was impossible. Quickly scanning around I fell upon the idea of wrapping the lights around the tree on our pitch.
Now it should be said that Chris’s mum and dad have the pleasure of owning the Christmas twig! Their tree is as old as Chris and the amount of tinsel left on its branches can be counted on the finger of one hand. I always giggle at the site of this forlorn object sat in the corner of their living room, more branch than bristling tree, weighed down by 1970 lights and baubles. But as I looked at our sorrowful substitute stuck in the middle of our pitch (and doubling up as a washing line) I was suddenly envious of Hilda and Joe’s twig. In fact I would have given Chris’s left testicle as a trade. So this year, I was the owner of the ‘Christmas Twig’ and Hilda and Joe were keen to gloat with just a little too much glee!
With Christmas Day fast approaching, Chris and I started to discuss logistics. Unconcerned, he announced it would be the same as any other day, other than we would open a few prezzies before he walked the dog. He was confident that ‘Colin’ would offer us sufficient room to accommodate the kids’ new toys and their desire to play with them, whilst he quickly pulled together something resembling a Christmas dinner in the 2ft of cooking space our kitchen offers. With our oven being nothing more than a glorified grill, I remained unconvinced. What he hadn’t considered was where I would sit.
Having heard that his plans included me sitting in bed all day, I made a quick dash to reception to see Pepe. Explaining the situation to him, he had an idea. In a blink of an eye, we were picking Chris up in Pepe’s Mercedes and heading towards a holiday apartment nearby. Pepe offered us a great deal, 50% off. I looked at Chris with pleading eyes. ‘Just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day’ I said.
I’m not sure what convinced him in the end – my desperate eyes or the realisation that he could fit double the amount of beer in the apartment fridge. Either way, I got my own way. We booked the apartment.
As we turned up to transfer the hidden presents from the garage to the apartment, we noticed about 20 chickens in the garden. Chris immediately jumped to the conclusion that we should save ourselves money by returning our chicken and catching a ‘fresh one’. I declined.
The chickens, knowing they would survive another year, seemed to gloat at Chris’s feet; preventing him from doing anything discreetly. As I tried to keep the kids distracted in the living room for the duration of the present transfer, Chris was outside re-enacting a scene from Animal Farm. The deafening sound of clucking chickens and thousands of feathers floating everywhere kind of destroyed any notion of discretion. It was a disaster.
That evening, we watched ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and snuggled together on the sofa as per our usual Christmas Eve tradition – only it was our first time sitting on a sofa in 4 month! Bliss!
The children went to bed in real beds (another luxury) hoping that they would wake to stockings. I promised them that Santa would know where they were. He had a telescope after all.
The gentle sound of ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ from a snow globe woke the kids early. Walking into the living area they were delighted by the small pile of presents laying in front of the fireplace. Looking at their faces, I was relieved and proud in equal measure. You see, our kids would usually have a living room filled with gifts; I was worried how they would react to just two presents each. Even though I had told them Santa wanted this Christmas to be about family, not gifts, I was unsure how the reality of the sentiment would play out. The fact that they were over the moon filled me with pride. It’s strange, but the less we have, the more grateful we are these days. Why should it be any different at Christmas? I was reminded of the saying ‘Less is more’. We had a wonderful morning.
With Lola and Jonah playing happily with their new (micro) toys, Chris started to prepare for another magical feat – a Christmas dinner. This had proved to be a challenge from the start. For one, we could not find a turkey (The Spanish eat Ham at Christmas). Secondly we did not have a cooker (now solved by transferring to the apartment) and thirdly, vegetables of English origin were incredibly scarce. With a concoction of old pots and weird bits of cutlery, he successfully pulled together a dinner that was almost reminiscent of a Christmas Dinner. We were so thankful that he had fought of a burly German for the last bag of brussel sprouts – they were the icing on the cake! Dinner was a triumph. It was our first roast dinner in 4 months and the only time we had sat around a table to eat without elbows and knees being a hazard.
After lunch we took a slow amble to the beach to take a few photo opportunities in the sun. The glorious weather was a stark contrast to the appalling floods our loved ones were experiencing at home. Obviously we didn’t want to gloat – we waited an entire hour before posting the photos all over Facebook!
Boxing Day came around all too soon, but as we ate a breakfast of left-overs we reflected on our time at the apartment. It was amazing how two bedrooms seemed so spacious – a bathroom so luxurious. We realised that, if we should ever return to ‘household living’, our abode need not be much larger than a small apartment. Although we each had a room to retreat to, we were drawn to each other. I think, after 4 months together, we all feel more comforted and content when we are in close proximity to one another. I love that this trip has subconsciously created that. Last year we would have jumped at the chance to run in opposite directions.
This adventure has brought us remarkably close as a family – more so than ever before. It was only when we were blessed with space that we realised we didn’t need it. It is one change I do not want to change.
Overall Christmas in the sun has been great. Of course we missed our immediate families and would have loved to have seen them, but despite that sacrifice, it was a modest Christmas with a small number of presents and a huge dose of presence.