January and the real, raw Mallorca5th January 2018

It seems that there will not be a cockerel on top of the greased pine of Ternelles on 17 January this year. For almost 100 years, a competition to climb the pine and win the prize of a cockerel in a basket at the top has been an eagerly awaited part of Pollensa’s Sant Antoni celebrations.

Although a 1992 Spanish law allowed the use of animals in some fiesta events as long as they weren’t treated unnaturally if there was an unbroken tradition of 100 or more years, the earliest evidence of the Pollensa cockerel climb is 1897. So, Pollensa mayor Miquel Angel March has decided that there will not be a cockerel on the top of the pine this year. He believes the treatment of the cockerel is unnatural and I’m sure you’d agree with him.

Reading this story in the Majorca Daily Bulletin, the island’s English language newspaper, reminded me that now is the time when Mallorca feels at its most real to me. This can be challenging. But it can also offer insights into island life that you wouldn’t get if you only visit in the summer.  

For much of January, apart from occasional, oddly balmy days, the weather is as wintry as it ever gets here. Although they dress up warmly whenever they venture outside from the end of October onwards, Mallorquins seem to work on the principle that interiors don’t get cold and damp. Bars become pretty miserable places because you have to keep your coat on and avoid slipping on the wet floors. Traditional Mallorquin homes can be absolutely freezing.

The Mallorquin for ‘hygge’

Last year, the Danish concept of ‘hygge’, described by The New Yorker as  ‘a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being’ became fashionable. Six books on the subject were published, including The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection by Thomsen Brits. Hygge has evolved from being a celebration of warm socks, hot chocolate and cinnamon buns to become a certain kind of mindfulness linked to a simple, cosy life.

Reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was actually a Mallorquin word for cosy. Although there is – it’s ‘acolidor’ – it can hardly be said to have the same potency as hygge. But, then, I remembered my first encounter with a ‘brasero’ or brazier.

When I first came to the island at Christmas, I visited a bohemian Mallorquin friend who was living in a partially collapsing finca at Pont d’Inca. The only heating she had in her living room was an ancient table with a brasero – a brazier filled with hot coals –  between its legs, covered with a long table cloth that reached the floor. Because braseros were so dangerous – tablecloths caught fire and people died of carbon monoxide poisoning – they disappeared. Today, apparently, they’re coming back into vogue but in an electric form. This is because of the cost of heating and the fact that more Spanish people like the idea of only warming the people around the brasero, rather than entire rooms where the heat escapes through the windows.

Sitting round the only source of warmth in a room, knees touching, is certainly cosy.

On the whole, though, it has to be said that winter months in Mallorca are not cosy. But, over the years I’ve come to appreciate this. There’s a certain satisfying wildness which characterises January that I think of as especially Mallorquin.

January as a baptism of fire

Unlike the Scandinavians, who hold back the winter darkness with twinkling little fairy lights draped over trees and politely flickering candles, Mallorquins have fiestas filled with dancing demons, flames from bonfires, clouds of red smoke and enormous, terrifying explosions. If you’ve ever been part of Palma’s incredible Festes de Sant Sebastià, which runs from 13 to 21 January and culminates in a street party in the old town that takes over several squares and narrow, twisting side streets you’ll know exactly what I mean.

On this last night of celebration, bands of all kinds – from gypsy to hip-hop – compete to drown each other out. Young people dance until they’re left drunk and reeling at dawn. The air is filled with the smells of cooking meat, wood smoke, gunpowder and lust. Although it’s usually cold and often raining, the Festes de Sant Sebastià are utterly exhilarating and, to me, timelessly, truly Mallorquin.

So, I would say that if you’re thinking of visiting Mallorca for a short break, January offers more than just great walking, almond blossoms in bloom, and empty beaches. Time your visit to coincide with the Festes de Sant Sebastià and you can also be guaranteed to experience a side of island life that often remains hidden. (Sa Rua, on the last weekend before Lent – around 9 February – is also well worth checking out.)

And, if you live here, you’ll know that it’ll soon be spring.

Bon festes!

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