SLOAN CLOUMN: Feliz Navidad: Christmas in Barcelona
A crisp wind blew as we walked back to our hotel on Christmas morning. It was 1981 and we were in Barcelona, Spain. I was in the Marine Corps and deployed with the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit aboard the USS Saipan.
A mere 19 at the time, this was my second med cruise. The first had been a year earlier, but it had been during the summer months. This was my first trip to Barcelona. It is also the one and only time I have spent Christmas away from loved ones.
The Saipan had pulled into Barcelona’s Port Vell on Dec. 22. My buddy’s and I left that evening on 24-hour shore leave. Sometime that evening the bollard to which the ship was secured broke. With no way to be secured, the Saipan had no choice but to pull out of port.
Those of us on shore leave were informed by way of the USO that we would be on our own for the next three days. They would put us up in a hotel and provide free meals if we could not pay for them ourselves.
I, for one, was far from heartbroken. I’m sure most of the others felt the same way. This would surely be a Christmas to remember.
Here is America, hundreds of Christmas songs or hymns fill the air during the holidays. In Barcelona there was one. Everywhere you went, and I mean everywhere, you heard it.
“Feliz Navidad Feliz Navidad Feliz Navidad Prospero Ano y Felicidad”
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a wonderful song and quite catchy, but after you have heard it for the 200th consecutive time, it can become most annoying and tarnish your holiday glow.
While walking down the Ramblas, Barcelona’s main thoroughfare, my buddy Keith befriended a beautiful Spanish senorita by the name of Amelia. She invited us to spend Christmas with her family. We gladly accepted.
On Christmas eve we stopped at a vendor on the Ramblas and purchased two bouquets of Spanish roses. I also stopped at a market and bought a bottle of Tempranillo, a red wine common to Spain. Unaware of the local customs, we simply did not want to arrive at our host’s home empty-handed.
We were welcomed graciously. Amelia’s was one of four families in the apartment complex. At the center of the complex was a large common area. This is where everyone gathered for the Christmas festivities.
Most, if not all, spoke at least some English.
That night we learned of Spanish Christmas traditions. A man dressed as Papa Noel, or Santa Claus, handed out gift bags filled with candy and nuts to the children. That was it. There were no toys or presents to unwrap, just candy and nuts. They were happy and grateful.
About 10 p.m. the children were tucked into bed. They had eaten their meal earlier, well before the candy and nuts were handed out. Once the kids were asleep, the adults moved to the dining area where an enormous feast was spread out on possibly the longest table I have ever seen.
For the next six or seven hours we sat at the table and ate and drank. We laughed, told stories, and sang songs. Then we ate and drank some more. I remember Keith, who played guitar, even sang them a few Beatles tunes.
As the years go by, I appreciate the memories of that night more and more.
About 5 a.m. Keith and I said our goodbyes. We got our coats and wished everyone Feliz Navidad and headed out to greet the dawn of Christmas Day.
It was quiet. Not eerily so, but more of a reverent silence. No motorcars or fellow pedestrians. Just stillness. We could hear our footsteps as we shuffled down the sidewalks and alleyways.
As we drew near the Ramblas the silence was broken. The sound of church bells grew stronger and stronger. The bells were from the Basilica of Santa Maria Del Pi, a towering gray structure with a huge circular stained glass window above its arched entrance.
It was beautiful sound, sweeter than any other church bells I had heard before or since. I remember the holiness of that singular moment.
A small café just off the Ramblas had just opened its doors and we ventured in to have coffee and eat breakfast. It was a most unusual meal, but that is another story for another time.
We made it back to the hotel and slept most of Christmas Day. When I awoke than afternoon I made my way to the USO to call and wish everyone at home in Virginia a Merry Christmas.
Outside, snowflakes fell from the sky, covering the rust-colored bricks of The Ramblas in a sheet of white. Walking back to the hotel, I found myself singing along with Jose Feliciano.