In the old days, Christmas in Alcalá was different. In the middle of December, without saying anything, all the families began their preparations for Christmas. Those who were able to had slaughtered a pig, so there was no shortage of chorizo, black pudding, crackling, chitterlings and salami during the festive period. The smell of Alcalá's traditional pork products impregnated every corner of the town. The splendid sausages were put by in the store-rooms and lofts of the houses to be cured, ready for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
They also made cakes and pastries: pestiños, doughnuts, aniseed cakes, oven-baked cakes, little fried pastries, pine-nut cakes, angel hair cakes. We didn't need to buy cakes, because they were made at home and given as presents. The nuns of St Clare made little marzipan figures, Cádiz bread, shortbread … Sometimes when people went to Cádiz, on the way back when the COMES bus stopped at Medina they would buy little boxes of macaroons, sweet biscuits, almond cakes and other specialities of “Las Trejas” in the Town Hall square.
In the Beatario and other infant schools of the town, the walls would be adorned with symbols of the nativity. The nuns rehearsed villancicos [folk carols] with the little children and the students. Many men went out into the fields to gather hawthorn, lentisco, rosemary, palm leaves and other greenery to build a nativity scene. For the children this was a major event. It was set up in a corner of the house: the secret entrance, rivers, paths, models of carbon-sellers, washerwomen in the river, shepherds with their sheep and goats, cowmen, wells … They were vignettes taken from real life. The town itself was like a beautiful picture of a nativity scene.
Don Arsenio and Señor Cobos rehearsed with a choir of young girls the Christmas Eve mass and the carols for the ceremony of kissing the feet of the infant Jesus. The mass was celebrated at San Jorge and the whole town attended. The singers occupied the choir stalls, but many young men sat close by to watch the girls singing. The children were enthusiastic about the song solos, because there were a couple of girls who impressed the congregation with their voices.
The mass was said at that time by Father Mainé, parish priest of San Jorge, who preached very well. The deacon was Father Lara, parish coadjutor and chaplain to the nuns of St Clare, and the sub-deacon was Father Manuel, coadjutor and chaplain of la Victoria. The celebration was one of the biggest of the year and the church was packed solid; men and women, adolescents and children, nobody was missing.
At the end of the mass, the young people took out bottles of anis and brandy. They went through the streets singing villancicos accompanied by the drumming of spoons on the bottles and the sound of the little bells that were kept at home for the goats. They asked for donations or sweets. We children copied them and did the same thing, but without drinking alcohol, and we went to bed earlier. When we went to bed, the others carried on singing villancicos. And in that delicious half-asleep state, we could still hear those melodies:
Pero mira cómo beben los peces en el río …
La Virgén está lavando y tendiendo en el romero, los pajarillos cantando y el romero floreciendo ...
[But see how they drink, the fishes in the river …
The Virgin is washing clothes and hanging them out on the rosemary, the little birds are singing and the rosemary is blooming …]
And I remember them full of nostalgia and melancholy. I don't know if it was because of the war, but they were sad sounds, that made you cry.
Translated by Claire Lloyd