Coming to Spain to learn Spanish involves more than just signing up for a Spanish course and going to class. If you really want to learn to speak Spanish - or any other language, for that matter - you certainly need to go to the country but, once you get there, you also need to see something of the culture. It's when you start to appreciate that, to assimilate it, that you really start to learn the language.
For that reason, the social program is just as important as your Spanish course itself. And in Barcelona in December, if you want to see something of Spanish culture, there's nowhere better than the Feria de Santa Lucía, a temporary market set up in front of and around the cathedral selling Christmas trees and figures for the belén, the crib, as well as countless ideas for Christmas presents.
"The Christmas tree is not really Spanish," says Montse Vilarrubla, the Spanish teacher who took us on a tour round the Feria. "We've only really had them since the 60s. What's traditional is the crib and, here in Catalonia, the cagatió."
The cagatió is a log, with a face painted on it, wearing a barretina, the red hat of traditional peasant costume. On Christmas Day, it's hidden under a blanket and the kids beat it with a stick, singing a rather rude little song that asks it to -- if you'll excuse the expression -- "shit" presents. Pilar Diaz, the second Spanish teacher who came with us, explained that the scatological thing is in fact a serious symbol of fertility for the next year.
That's also the explanation behind another of the peculiar local traditions. The caganer is a figure that adorns a corner of the cribs in everyone's home. Traditionally, the caganer is dressed in traditional costume, though we saw others dressed as culés (Barça fans, that is), bishops, Civil Guards, Spain's president José Luis Zapatero and literally countless others. Yes, the caganer has his trousers (traditional or otherwise) down and is taking a pooh. We even saw caganers that were castellers - the human towers that are another wonderful tradition here. Only the one on the bottom was spending sixpence, I should add.
Anna Gromball, who has come to learn Spanish with us from Berlin, says that there is something a bit kitschy about Christmas here and that in Germany things are a bit more sober.
That's probably true (though isn't it true wherever you go nowadays?); but there are some wonderful Spanish traditions that it's nice to see surviving. One is that we have mistletoe (muérdago) and a ponsetia in the house - but they have to be given to you as a present. They have mistletoe in Germany, too, Anna says - and like in England, you have to catch a handsome stranger standing under it. Do you do that here in Spain? "Well, sometimes, yes," says Monste, "but only because we've seen it happen in films." At IH Barcelona, we generally have a huge mix of nationalities, and comparing our different cultures is always fun.
Another wonderful tradition is the making of the crib - something which they are busy doing and displaying in schools at this time of year. And in homes, the kids like to have a big one so that they can move the kings slowly closer and closer to the Baby Jesus, to arrive on January 6th - bringing the presents, as in Spain it's traditionally the kings (the Reyes Magos), not Father Christmas (or Papa Noel), that bring them.
And did our Spanish students buy figures for the crib? Christine Zoller, who is half Italian, half English, had certainly been tempted - seals, a bat and a hippo, rather than a caganer. Anna had also bought herself something - a handbag decorated with strawberries, very Chistmassy!
"I really like the social program," says Christine. "You learn a lot about the local culture - and lots of new Spanish words, too." Well, if we did that, it was certainly a worthwhile visit.
More from our Visit Barcelona program.