A Canary Christmas
Members of our Cunard family will often be found sailing the Canary Islands in December and early January. We take a tropical trip around the islands and archipelagos to find out how the locals mark the Christmas season.
A festive journey to a warm Atlantic archipelago may seem an odd choice to some, but anybody who has been on a Cunard voyage to the Canaries knows it to be a fantastic choice, filled with tradition, food, beaches and beautiful scenery.
The residents of the Canary Islands enjoy a colorful array of yuletide festivities and traditions. Catholicism governs much of the celebrations, with local churches organising nativity scenes, known as belén. Visitors shouldn’t miss the Traditional Nativity of Yaiza (Lanzarote), The Nativity Route in the North of Tenerife, and, perhaps most impressive of all, the Nativity of Las Canteras beach (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria), a spectacular and unique nativity scene carved into the sand itself.
For most of the world, Christmas Day is the date circled on the calendar, but in the Canaries Christmas Eve, Nochebuena, is the main attraction. The locals head home soon after lunch for an afternoon and evening of feasting and merriment. Multiple courses are on offer: fresh fish and seafood, roast beef, rabbit, salmorejo (a cold tomato soup) and papas arrugadas (also known as ‘wrinkled potatoes’). Desserts include quesadilla de El Hierro (cinnamon pastries), mazapan (a peanut confection) and turrón, a traditional nougat with toasted almonds. The banquet lasts until midnight, when the family go to church for mass.
Christmas Day is a time to rest and recover from the feasting of the night before. The locals will rise late and go for a daytime walk, perhaps to meet with friends or family to wish them well. One must-see event does occur on this date: a special concert held by the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra in Santa Cruz. This spectacular musical treat is broadcast every year, so people can enjoy it from home.
Gifts are exchanged in the Canaries, but on a later date than you might expect. In line with the biblical Christmas story, presents in the Canaries are exchanged later, on January 6. Parades are held the day before, where ‘the three kings’, most likely on camels, can be spotted. Children all over the islands put out their shoes, along with grains for the camels to eat, and awake the next morning to find them full of gifts.
New Year's Eat
A week after the Christmas festivities, the feasting begins once more on New Year’s Eve, or Nochevieja. Families come together again to have dinner, often in formal dress, before going out to celebrate in style. Towns might have their own festivities organised: Puerto del Rosario in Fuerteventura puts on a concert and fireworks each year to mark the occasion. For those who prefer a quieter, more reflective start to the year, the beach is a perfect venue for some stargazing and a private toast.
One tradition that most islanders still follow today is the eating of a grape on each chime at midnight. This is to bring good luck for the New Year, and is said to have started in the early twentieth century after a good grape harvest.
The first day of the year is one for rest and for family, however there are a few local events that are well worth a visit. The New Year’s Day swim is enjoyed by locals on every island, if they are brave enough to brace the chill of the Atlantic.
Shops and restaurants open on New Year’s Day as well, so visitors and locals alike can take things at their own pace. Thanks to the mild winter temperatures (between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius), beaches are also a viable option, as are the volcanoes and national parks for those who wish to explore.
Secrets of the Canaries
The rugged beauty of these islands is obvious, but there are many mysteries and secrets around their history. Here are a few fun facts to pique your interest in this fantastic region.
Eight islands officially make up the Canary Islands, though many other rocky outcrops also help to form this Spanish archipelago. There were only seven until 2018, when the only other inhabited island, La Graciosa, was formally added.
The Canaries brim with natural wonders. Lanzarote is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Its Fire Mountains in Timanfaya National Park were created nearly 300 years ago after volcanic eruptions. The landscape is eerie and lunar, and water poured into boreholes hisses back as steam. Tenerife’s Teide National Park also has UNESCO status, and from here you can ascend Spain’s highest volcanic peak – Mount Teide which stands at 3,718 meters above sea level – by cable car.
The islands’ name is derived from the Latin word for dog – ‘canis’. When the Romans invaded, they were wary of the wild dogs that lived here – along with the fierce cave-dwelling natives called Gaunches, whose language was whistled. This way of communicating across the valleys and ravines is still used on the island of La Gomera today.
The patron saint of Tenerife is St Andrew (indeed, the island’s flag is almost identical to Scotland’s). Legend has it that when he visited, he imbibed too much local wine and, when he fell into a stupor, children tied pots and pans to his clothes as a prank. Today, St Andrew’s Day (30 November) is still commemorated by youngsters noisily pulling strings of cans through the streets.
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