Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When the clock strikes midnight in Spain...'s time to eat grapes – very quickly! One for each chime of the bell. Why is that?

The 12 grapes represent the months of the new year, with the hope being that each month will be as delicious as the grapes you gulp down. Therefore, the ideal thing to do is to pop 12 sweet grapes into your mouth, because that will mean 12 pleasant months to look forward to. If you're unfortunate enough to have a sour one in the bunch, then that month will be as bitter as the fruit. So, for example, if grape number 6 is off, then your July will be, too! God forbid that there are multiple unsavory ones, as that could spoil much of your luck for the year ahead. And should you miss out on the grape eating altogether, you are quite simply courting bad luck for the entire 365 days.

That is one of the reasons why tonight throughout Spain people will welcome in another New Year with a mouthful of grapes. It's quite funny, too, because as you see those around you hurriedly trying to wolf down 12 grapes in a row, the laughter starts, which in turn makes it difficult to swallow, which causes more laughter, and then more of a panic as everyone tries to finish devouring their grapes while the chimes are still ringing.

After that, many Spaniards will wash down the grapes with one of Spain's other great vintage products, cava! Then for some people it will be dancing and celebrating in the streets, while others will watch and toast one of the festive programs on TV.

As to the roots of this “oral” tradition, I have heard different things. One of the more fanciful stories is that it started long ago at the end of a year when there was such a bountiful grape harvest that on New Year's Eve (Noche Vieja) the King generously distributed the fruit to everyone throughout the land. On the more mundane side is the report that in 1909 a group of Spanish grape growers created and promoted the idea in order to sell more product. The truth probably lies somewhere else.

It is interesting to note that similar traditions exist in other Mediterranean countries, as well as in Latin America. Cook and writer Nigella Lawson observed on a radio show on New Year food traditions broadcast by NPR a year ago that a tradition of eating exactly 12 grapes also exists in Malta, whereas Italy's midnight grape consuming tradition involves manically eating as many grapes as possible to ensure good health in the coming year.

Lawson also mentioned what she thought were deeper meanings of such customs. She saw a connection to folk wisdom, in that people in grape growing regions have always known that grapes are healthy, whereas science only discovered relatively recently that grape skins contain resvesterol, which may prevent cancer and heart disease.

But perhaps just as significant is the fact that, as Lawson said, “you’re doing something year in, year out, that your antecedents have done as well. And I think that’s such an important part of human ritual.”

So, here in Spain the old year ends and the new one begins with laughs, hugs, kisses, good wishes and, most of all, the tradition and hope symbolized by 12 guileless grapes.

Feliz año nuevo amig@s,



Carloz said...

By the way, one of my students told me that the general opinion here is that the sweetest grapes are the muscat variety -- "moscatel" in Spanish. He says those are the most popular grapes to buy for New Year's Eve. I've got mine ready!

Carloz said...

Just an FYI that I had 12 succulently sweet grapes last night. Happy 2009!