The Christmas Eve Dinner, Gabon afaria, is a ritual considered to be the quintessential family meal. All the people at the meal are usually members of the family and the married children return to the paternal home with their respective families. Nowadays, the married couples usually alternate by celebrating Christmas Eve with one set of parents and New Year’s Eve with the parents of the other spouse. In the past, the offspring who were servants in other houses were given leave by their masters to go to the dinner, along with the gift of a salted cod to take home. Those offspring would also sometimes take a bream, along with the salted cod, to the family meal.
The ritual of blessing the bread used to take place before the start of the meal. The father, at the head of the table, blessed and then immediately took the whole loaf that had been placed on the table and used a knife to make a sign of the cross on it. After kissing the loaf, he cut off a piece of the crust of the homemade round loaf or a kurrusko from a normal one and put it under the tablecloth. That bread, ogi salutadorea, was said to have curative properties. It was said that it could be kept until the following Christmas without becoming mouldy and was thought to protect people and animals from getting rabies. In Lekeitio, they threw it into a rough sea to calm it; into the river in Zeanuri and Elorrio when it broke its banks and threatened to flood the land and the town; and into the air in Iurreta when there was a risk of a hailstorm.
Traces of a vigil supper can still be seen in the Christmas Eve celebrations as that day was set by the Church to abstain from eating meat until the early part of the 20th century and had previously been a fast day.
Traditionally, the meal consisted of a dish of cabbage, orio-azak, seasoned with oil and garlic. Cauliflower was more recently included, along with fish, either grilled beam or salted cod prepared in different ways. There would always be wine on the table and the meal usually finished with coffee and liqueurs.
The dinner nowadays has changed considerably with the introduction of hors d’oeuvres and shellfish. As regards the fish, the bream has been replaced by other types, and eels or their alternatives are served. Capon, lamb, kid or tenderloin continue to be enjoyed, but there is now a great range of dishes. When it comes to beverages, champagne is more widely drunk and there is a greater variety of spirits.
Desserts are a very important part of this dinner. A dessert featuring walnuts, the intxaursaltsa, was typical in much of Bizkaia, and the tostadas made out of slices of bread soaked in milk and dipped in egg were served in Las Encartaciones. Another typical dessert was compote, mainly made out of apples or pears. Sweet chestnuts were also eaten.
A traditional way of preparing the intxaursaltsa was this one from Zeanuri. After the nuts had been shelled, the pieces of nuts were ground on a table using a bottle as a rolling pin until they released their oil. Homemade breadcrumbs were added to the ground nuts and the mixture was placed in an earthenware dish and cooked in a stock made using a piece of dried cod that had been first removed. Sugar was added and the mixture was given a good stir and left to cook for half an hour. An egg yolk or cornbread crumbs were added for colour. The mixture was left to rest and served warm.
Turrón or nought became popular in rural areas in the 1940s, even though there were only two types – “soft and hard” – compared to the huge variety found today. Different types of dried fruits and nuts, such as almonds, were also introduced, along with polvorones (Christmas cookies made out of flour, ground almonds and lard), marzipan and other sweets. There is now a huge variety of sweet treats specific to the festive season and they are an important part of the dinner and time spent lingering after the meal.
Luis Manuel Peña