Holiday Shopping


Christmas market"—it's a lovely phrase, isn't it? Conjures up candle-lit scenes of Old Europe, where the scents of pine and spiced wine float through the air of some ancient stone plaza, and where red-cheeked vendors roast chestnuts, or stand behind artful displays of hand-carved ornaments and hand-painted music boxes.

But the Madrid Christmas market is really about plastic. Plastic shaped into puddles of fake vomit or cartoon masks for the Holy Innocents celebration (the Spanish April Fool's Day) that comes on December 28. Plastic spun into the wigs—beach-ball sized Afros and long, flowing purple locks—start appearing mid-month on the heads of the lightly inebriated as they make their tapas crawls. And especially, above all else, plastic molded into the tiny figurines that populate nativity scenes here.

To this extranjera's eye, the figurines—tiny shepherds with tiny sheep' donkeys with their even tinier loads of sticks (all sold separately, of course)—are cheap and ugly. But if the crowds in the Plaza Mayor are any indication, to your average Spaniard, those figurines are like gingerbread and sleighbells and carols combined: the very embodiment of Christmas itself. They comb the stands carefully, marveling at the miniature functioning waterwheels, which apparently are the sine qua non of nativity scenes. They lovingly choose the new figure—will it be a baker with a tiny basket of tiny loaves or the camel?—that will be this year's addition to their home creche. Then they scoot over to the greenery stand for a couple of pieces of moss (moss provides the requisite greenery for Middle Eastern manger scenes), toss back their purple manes, and joyfully head home.

Go figure.

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