Friday, December 31, 2010

Old Year, New Year

Tonight we will celebrate the changing of the year in Madrid.  We will follow the tradition, and, with a little luck, pass into 2011.

The central place to gather in Madrid for the new year is Puerta del Sol.  The large square becomes packed with people, much like Times Square in New York City.  Unlike New York, there is no ball, or apple, or sponsored knick knack that falls from the sky.  Instead, the people stand and watch the large clock in the square, waiting for it to begin chiming.  The clock is televised, and formally dressed television personalities make small talk and compliment each other while waiting for the moment to arrive.  Finally, when it is almost time, the clock begins to chime.  The announcers will warn the audience to wait, because the first chimes are not the chiming of the hour, but the chiming of the quarters, which do not count.

Do not count for what?  For the eating of the grapes, of course.  With each of the first 12 chimes of the new year, Madrileños eat a grape.  Eating 12 grapes in such a short period of time can be a challenge, especially if the grapes have not been thoughtfully chosen.  The typical grapes which are available in Spain tend to be thick-skinned and have seeds inside.  I have found myself on the ingesting end of these grapes during New Years Past.  It all begins so simply, with the careful attention and the first chime of the hour.  The first grape goes into the mouth.  I chew, I come into contact with the seeds, I notice that the skin is somewhat thick.  The next chime happens, and I put a second grape in.  Then the third.  Now I am trying to remove seeds from my mouth, chew on the increasing accumulation of skins, and at the same time eat the next grape.  By the eighth grape or so, my mouth is full, and the skins and seeds are starting to slip down my throat.  I'm coughing, eating another grape, and gagging.  I wonder how many Spaniards do not survive the New Year ritual, collapsing with a throat stuffed with grapes.  There are lavish television reports on the car accidents of New Year's Eve, but I have never seen reports of what must be the dozens of choking fatalities. I can visualize them in my mind, the festive table, the knocked over glasses of cava, the face-down victim.

More recently, we have bought the grapes in tiny cans which are specially packaged for the New Year celebration.  Each can contains exactly 12 tiny, seedless grapes, swimming in water, waiting to be painlessly downed to generate luck at the appropriate time. 

The strangest thing about the New Year's celebration in Spain is the way that the people party.  Almost everyone stays at home with their families until midnight, and then they go out, and stay out most of the night.  The bars and restaurants are not open, the town is, for the most part, dead, until after the start of the new year.  Then the real work of partying begins.


  1. I've never heard of that tradition before! Interesting. What do the grapes represent? Many Southerners believe you have to eat greens (usually collards), black eyed peas and cornbread to assure a good new year. The greens represent money, the peas luck. The cornbread is money as well, gold. Given I like greens, black eyed peas and cornbread, it's a very easy tradition to continue :)

  2. I like greens, black eyed peas, and cornbread also. The grapes represent the months of the year. There is a rather cynical story behind the tradition, about an overabundant grape harvest in 1903, and a need to develop a bigger grape market.