Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 23, 2011

Malaga, Spain provides perfect Christmas setting for St. John fam

MALAGA, SPAIN— Ten years ago, if someone posed the question, “Where do you think you will spend your 50th Christmas?” My answer would have been quick and certain, “At home.”

A decade is a world away in Malaga, Spain.

I have worried about Christmas since August. The original itinerary had the family spending the entire month of December in England, with Christmas week in London. That was until my friend Nick, an expatriated Brit living in Atlanta, told me that December in England would be a terrible idea, “It’s cold and wet and starts getting dark at 3 p.m.”

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Cold and wet aren’t necessarily a problem for my group, but the whole getting dark at 3 p.m. was a surprise. He’s a sharp guy, so I took his advice.

The new calendar and travel itinerary placed us in Spain during December, more specifically, the south of Spain. Our family and a few friends are coming over and we are all going to share a villa in the Andalusian countryside midway between Seville and Granada, just north of the Mediterranean and Malaga.

In August, while already on the road, I began second-guessing my plan. Why didn’t I book Germany during December? Maybe I should have chosen France for Christmas. And after spending three weeks in Tuscany, I regretted not re-booking that villa for the holidays.

Would the south of Spain, which was ruled by the Moors for over five centuries, know how to celebrate Christmas? Would there be Christmas carols? Lights? Would we be able to find a Christmas tree? Does Santa even know his way around in this part of the world? Suddenly, Spain seemed like the worst potential European country in which to spend a Christmas holiday.

I love Christmas. It’s a big deal for me. But I’ve got a 14 year-old daughter and 10 year-old son in tow. It’s an even bigger deal to them. I also have parents, in-laws, and friends traveling thousands of miles during the holidays to spend time in the location I chose. The pressure is on.

Many of the traditions we Americans celebrate during Christmas started in Germany and England. In October I thought about re-booking the entire holiday season and finding a small village near the Bavarian forest where it would be cold, with a chance of snow. There we would spend a Christmas holiday like we have never experienced.

But the changes were too expensive and I couldn’t settle on one place that would be the ultimate European Christmas spot. So we trudged onward towards Spain.

When we left Italy at the end of November, I began to worry that the entirety of Europe might not put as much importance on Christmas as we do back home. There were no decorations in the stores and no lights on the streets.

In France, during the first week of December, our yuletide prospects didn’t look much better. Once we left the Cote d’Azur and headed into Provence, we started to see a few hints of Christmas. Arles was dead.
Aix En Provence had lights on the streets, but that was about it. I began preparing my apology speech to the family about booking a holiday vacation near the Mediterranean, in what seemed to me, like the least likely of all Christmas spots.

The first week in Barcelona began to look more promising. Colorful Christmas lights were everywhere. Even the smallest streets were lit for the holidays. There was energy on the sidewalks. It was cold and we were grateful for it. We moved further inland.

Madrid in mid December seemed magical, and the hustle and bustle of the streets inspired me to break out the Christmas music on my iPod. Earlier this week, while spending a few days in Seville, I began to wonder why we don’t do more with Christmas lights on our streets back home. It seems so festive.

The pink elephant in the room was still the south coast of Spain. My father-in-law spent a few Christmases on tropical islands in the Baja peninsula and I thought he was nuts. Those places just don’t seem like Christmas places to me.

Yesterday, as I drove through thousands of acres of olive groves on our way to Malaga, I prepared to tender my resignation as chief travel planner. As we drew closer to the town center, I began to muster the courage to apologize to the troops for making them spend Christmas— of all of the locales in Europe— a few hundred miles from the shores of Morocco.

 Then what to my wondering eyes should appear?
The deal was sealed our first night in Malaga. This town is like stepping into a Disney Christmas on steroids. The holiday lights on the streets and pedestrian walkways are so colorful and bright that it seems like the middle of the day at 10 p.m. A massive nativity scene in the town’s main roundabout is beautiful and constructed entirely out of flowers, leaves, and branches. Giant Christmas trees with colorful twinkling lights are placed all through the town.
Parades of carolers march down the sidewalks, one group after another. At the end of the sidewalk, near the square, each group steps onto a brilliantly lit stage and continues to sing carols. We don’t have any idea what they are singing, though some of the melodies we recognize, the intent is unmistakable. Like the man said, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”
As we walked along the sidewalk holiday market trying to find a couple of stockings to hang on the mantle of the villa, my wife said, “This place is more Christmassy than any we have visited. This is the perfect spot. It amazes me that you’ve known just where to go this entire trip.”
I just smiled and said, “I knew it all along.”
Feliz Navidad.

(Restaurateur, author and self-described “world-class eater” Robert St. John with his family has embarked on his most ambitious project yet — a months-long trip to Europe to expand his knowledge of culinary traditions and conduct research. Contact him at