When I was living in Madrid, I decided not to do much for New Year’s Eve. I made that decision partly because all of my friends had left for the holidays, but largely because all the clubs in the city were charging entrance fees upwards of 100 Euros when the standard 15 to 20 Euros was already a huge rip-off. Instead ringing in the new year at a crowded club, I grabbed my camera and headed up to the perhaps even more crowded Puerta del Sol, the hub of Madrid and the center of its New Year’s celebrations. I figured I would do some people watching, take some photos of the crowd and the fireworks, then head home.
The square at the Puerta del Sol is large, but it didn’t come close to holding the mass of people out celebrating that night. The crowds started a few blocks away and just getting to the plaza took forever. I had to squeeze my way past crowd control gates and police checkpoints, not to mention the thousands of drunk, happy people. I didn’t mind nearly as much as I would have thought, though. The festive mood was kind of infectious. Say what you will about the Spanish tendency to spend large parts of their week drinking; at least they’re generally happy drunks.
The streets approaching the plaza were lined with entrepreneurs selling grapes at prices usually reserved for precious metals. They sold them in bunches of twelve for people looking to start the new year off on the right foot with “las doce uvas de la suerte” or “the twelve grapes of luck.” I’m sure many of you are familiar with this tradition, although I wasn’t until I moved to Madrid. Basically, you start eating grapes at the stroke of midnight, downing one with each strike of the bell, until you’ve swallowed 12, one for each month. Completing this task successfully either ensures a year of prosperity or wards off evil, depending on whom you ask.
Naturally, I couldn’t help myself: my first thought was that this is just another holiday designed to sell something—in this case, grapes. Sure enough a short article on Wikipedia (found here) states the tradition was popularized by vine growers in 1909 to sell grapes. It also mentions that the custom dates back a bit further, but unfortunately doesn’t go into the actual origins. Perhaps it began from a motive other than profit, but as is the case with most (maybe all) popular holidays these days, you can no longer escape the commercial aspect. Not that any of that matters, really. People were having a blast preparing for the grape challenge and I was having fun watching them.
Of course much of their enjoyment was due to the consumption of grapes in their liquid form. I have no idea what effect this might have on one’s luck or prosperity in the coming year, but the hundreds of wine and champagne bottles all around me were certainly having a joyous effect on the final hours of the current year. They were also having an effect on my forward progress, but I did eventually get reasonably close to the clock tower at the Puerta del Sol with about 20 minutes to spare.
I had long since abandoned any thoughts of photographing the crowd—it was too dark and I was getting jostled around too much to have any hope of getting a sharp photo and it just wasn’t worth the risk to pull out my camera amidst all the champagne being sprayed all over the place. That only got worse when the clock struck twelve and people started trying to eat their way to a prosperous new year.
As you’ve probably been guessed by now from the photos, I did manage to get some shots of the fireworks once the initial chaos died down, but I didn’t get any pictures of people swallowing grapes. I did watch them though and I learned that choking down 12 grapes in 12 seconds is apparently not that easy and is not made easier when you’re trying to hold back laughter; and holding back laughter is impossible when your friends are dumping champagne on you and you’ve all already spent the past several hours dumping it down your throats. I didn’t see anyone actually finish their grapes in time, but none of them seemed to care—they were having way too much fun trying. I just hope it was worth it: if you believe the superstition, the next 12 months of their lives were going to be miserable.