As anyone who’s enjoyed winter in Mallorca knows, the weather can vary enormously. Some days are crystal clear with empty skies, and it’s warm enough to sunbathe. On others, the best thing is to keep warm and cosy inside with chocolat a la taza and churros. But, whatever the weather, a Mallorca Christmas is something special.
First of all, I was curious to find out from Alexander at expert garden and terrace designers Mashamba, if the gardeners among us should do anything special to prepare for winter in Mallorca.
“Not really,” Alexander said. “You’ll be pleased to hear. This is not generally a land of cloches, greenhouses and straw insulation. Snow is not really a concern, as the amounts we get here are negligible. In any case, the primary risk of snow in gardens is not the cold so much as the weight. Frost is a far superior opponent and can do real damage to plants not accustomed to it. Contrary to what you’d expect, frosts tend to strike lowland areas like the middle of the island much more than places like Deia. If your garden is near the sea, you should be relatively safe because of the milder climate.”
I wondered if there were plants we should take special care of during winter in Mallorca in case of frost? “Many Mallorca favourites such as plumbago and bougainvillea are prone to frost burn and should ideally be planted in more protected areas. The good news is that they generally survive and bounce back vigorously with the warm weather,” Alexander told me.
According to Alexander, if you see plants that have been affected, you should wait until the risk of further frosts has gone before you cut back all damaged areas. As ever, if you plant things that are adapted to the local climate, they may not look their best at this time of year but they should do fine.
Most of the plants that become dormant during the winter in Mallorca benefit from a serious haircut. This applies to roses, gaura, ornamental grasses, vines and some pretty much every kind of fruit tree apart from citrus – apple, plum and pear, for instance.
“Each has its own pruning method,” Alexander explains. “As a general rule of thumb, you should be fairly heavy-handed and cut back hard. This may leave the garden looking bare in patches, but your efforts will be rewarded in the coming spring.”
Alexander also recommends doing larger clean-up jobs on pine trees in winter as there’s less resin. This is also one of the safer times of year to tackle palm trees. These release a pheromone when cut that attracts the palm beetle, notorious for killing trees. The palm beetle is less active in winter, so the clean-up is less risky.
Naturally, there’s still lots of weeding to be done.
I’m grateful to Tomás Graves for the following insight into traditional Mallorca Christmas decoration. He writes:
The traditional Mallorca Christmas decoration, as in the rest of Spain, is the betlem or creche and, in common with Catalonia, the neules or rice-paper discs which decorate churches and homes.
Neules date back to the 13th century, after the Arabic occupation of Mallorca left a paper mill near Alcudia, which made paper from cotton grown there. Very fine scissors are used to make geometric shapes or Christmas scenes, normally stuck to those windows that look out onto the street.
Turron, which in the Balearics consists of a paste of almond, sugar, cinnamon and lemon zest sandwiched between two rice-paper neules, is a domestic Christmas tradition.
Traditionally, though, Christmas festivities were always more religious than domestic, although the family would gather for Christmas dinner. The highlight of Christmas Eve was always the Midnight Mass – called the Missa del Gall or Cockerel’s mass – which ends with the medieval Cant de la Sibilla. This is now recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage.
The Missa del Gall is traditionally sung by a very young boy, although in the last few decades it’s more likely to be performed by a girl. A terrifying testament of the Last Judgement, full of macabre images, the child sings it from the pulpit, dressed in a medieval costume and carrying a sword. At the end of the performance, the child traditionally cut the string that suspended the rice paper neules from the ceiling which allowed them to fall to the floor where they were eaten by the faithful. Today, all the neules are paper and the string is no longer cut.
In churches, betlems are very large, some with working models of windmills, waterwheels and carpenters’ shops. Domestic creches are more modest, usually using rough pieces of cork to make the manger, moss gathered from streams to make the grass, a mirror to represent the pond, and flour to imitate snow.
Betlem figures, on sale all the Christmas Markets, always include the holy family with the ox and ass, the angel, the Magi and the shepherds but can add up to a cast of dozens. A popular fixture is King Herod’s castle, on a craggy outcrop in the distance.
Traditionally, the betlem was set up on 21 December. The baby Jesus would be added on the 24th and the Magi would be moved a few centimetres closer to the manger every day until they arrived on Twelfth Night or the Three Kings, 6 January. This was always more important than Christmas for Spanish children’s presents. Shoes, not socks, are set out to receive them.
Unlike northern European countries, where Christmas decorations are taken down on Twelfth Night, in the Balearics they’re often left until 2 February. This is La Candelaria, or Candlemas, the day whose weather will predict the general climate for the coming year. If Candlemas is sunny it “laughs” and summer will arrive late. But if it “cries” and rains, winter will soon be over.
One of the nicest ways to counter some of the more over the top gaudiness of Christmas is to create decorations inspired by nature. Mallorca has an abundance of pine cones and turning them into decorations is simplicity itself.
Jennifer of Mashamba has the following suggestions.
If you’re thinking about giving yourself the gift of a new or redesigned garden or terrace in 2019, now’s a good time to have a chat with Mashamba.
Happy Holidays and a great Mallorca Christmas from Mashamba!