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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

A Traditional Ibicenco Christmas


Historical Information

Hello and Happy Christmas! This week we will turn our attention to the ways in which Ibiza traditionally celebrated this important holiday. As opposed to the Northern European Yule-tide celebrations, in which the key ingredient has, for centuries, been gaiety, the key ingredient in the Ibicenco Christmas tradition was, until very recently, solemnity.

Part of the reason behind these two different approaches can no doubt be attributed to climate. The protracted length and severity of northern winters required people to develop methods of combating both the icy cold and the long hours of idleness. The result was a culture rich in 'indoor' tradition. It is an observable fact that the coldest countries (e.g. Germany, Britain, Scandinavia, etc.) typically have the most festive Christmas traditions. Carols (which developed in northern Europe during the early Middle Ages and were frequently condemned by the Church as 'obscene and wicked songs with choruses of women' *) remind us that northern Christmas customs invoked their people to "deck the halls with boughs of holly', to "strike the harp and join the chorus", to "troll the ancient Yuletide carol", and to generally give themselves over to revelling.

Conversely, in Ibiza, and southern Europe in general, Christmas was a high holy affair. Gaiety and merry-making were not the order of the day, but rather a deep and chaste veneration of the Christ child. Also, because the primary focus of Ibicenco society was on the 'outdoor' aspects of life, islanders did not develop the 'let-it-snow' mentality with its accompanying wealth of indoor amusements. Life was, in short, rather dull at this time of year, Christmas notwithstanding.

Misa del Gall and Ses Caramelles

The religious aspect of the holiday was observed by attending Midnight Mass (Misa del Gall) on Christmas Eve. During this service, a slow, lugubrious type of Christmas hymn called ses caramelles were (and are) performed. Unlike the catchy carols of northern Europe and even mainland Spain, ses caramelles were not intended as popular jingles but as solemn liturgical music to be sung only by trained choir members. Perhaps the merriest part of Misa del Gall, was when everyone could at last walk home, huddled together for warmth and singing popular folk songs to ward off evil spirits.

Nor was Christmas a time of gift-giving and lavish decorations. The unrelieved poverty of yesteryear's islanders inhibited the exchange of presents, while the basic, and often sole, element of domestic Yule-tide embellishment consisted of a crib (i.e. manger scene). Perhaps a few extra candles would be lit, but little else marked the yearly commemoration of baby Jesus's birth.

Sofrit Pagès

The gastronomy of the season, however, did register a certain festive flair. Because Christmas comes so soon after ses matançes (see Kirk's series), many households served sofrit pagès for Christmas dinner (and often still do). This dish is prepared from the produce of slaughter and its leftovers, ensuring that virtually none of the pig was wasted - as Kirk has pointed out many times.

Basically, sofrit pagès is a rich stew made of tongue, spare ribs, streaky bacon, butifarra (Catalan blood sausage), sobrasada (Balearic red sausage), garlic, parsley and a type of tiny potato called patató. All of these ingredients are added to a big vat of stock that has been boiled up with chunks of lamb, chicken and pork. One of the secrets of the dish is its seasoning, of marked Moorish influence: cinnamon, saffron, paprika, salt, pepper or any combination thereof - each family has its own special recipe. Traditionally, the preparation of sofrit pagès took two days with all of the women in the houshold helping in the different kitchen tasks.

Salsa Nadal

The crowning glory of the Ibicenco Christmas menu is a weird and wondrous dessert known as salsa de Nadal or 'Christmas sauce'. I regard the concoction as weird because it combines a somewhat incongruous list of ingredients, and wondrous because the human digestive system has probably never known a greater challenge and will wonder how to go about digesting the stuff!

Salsa Nadal is a thick liquid (also very time-consuming to prepare) made of ground almonds, honey and oriental spices (again showing the islands' strong Moorish influence), all cooked in stock. In some households, the stock used for this pudding is the same three-meat stock used for sofrit pagès, while other homes use a milder chicken stock, or simply water It can be served hot or cold and is accompanied by biscuit, a type of plain sponge used for dunking. Even among native Ibicencos, opinions on salsa de Nadal are polarized: people either love it or they hate it. I invite each reader to try it for himself and decide!


As is only natural, the advent of tourism in Ibiza has brought with it a partial dissolution of cultural boundaries and the invasion of consumerism, thus giving rise to a more 'typical' Christmas celebration. Globally familiar features such as Santa Claus, gift-giving, Christmas trees, flashy decorations, etc. can now be seen in the main towns. To a large degree, however, the old and the new co-exist in a melange of religious sentiment and worldly merry-making.

Before closing, I would like to wish all of our readers a joyful holiday season, full of warmth and pleasure. Next week, I will be away on holiday, so I bid you all a safe and prosperous journey into the New Year. See you in two weeks from now when I will try my hand at an artistic write-up.

* Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, 1995, Routledge.

Emily Kaufman