INTERVIEW: Gibraltar mayor talks about Christmas memories, modern living and his love for singing carols

GIBRALTAR mayor Christian Santos opens up in an exclusive interview about his memories of Christmas, his fondness of festive carols and his plans for this year’s festivities.

The charismatic, inclusive mayor said he wanted to make the City Hall a place where “everyone will feel welcome and at home,” when he took on the position on May 30, 2021.

Since then, he has largely accomplished this, bringing a breath of fresh air to a role that is normally given to people at the end of their public careers.

But while he might be on the avant-garde of modern culture, he has always managed to be aware of his roots with family and friends.

These communal relations became the bedrock of the community when Spanish dictator Franco shut the frontier in 2022. 

It is therefore no surprise this was one of the pillars of his youth during these festive times.

“Christmas in my youth was all about family, friends and neighbours,” Santos tells the Olive Press. 

“I was very fortunate that we lived surrounded by neighbours which were our extended family and we celebrated holidays together.”

Born in the 1970s and growing up throughout the 80s was a far cry from the Gibraltar we enjoy now.

With the frontier closed until 1982, the Rock was much more dependent on the UK back then. About 60% of the population was in Ministry of Defence employment and money was tight.

“There wasn’t as much disposable income as nowadays and Christmas was more about the experience than material gifts,” the mayor recalls.

“I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had magical times with special foods which were only available around that time, the cavalcade which was the highlight of my Christmas and just family days playing with new toys with my brothers.”

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Old and new

Gibraltar’s transformed economy might have brought wealth, but it also raised the bar.

“We now have the self-imposed pressures of having spectacular Christmas celebrations,” Santos explains. 

“We want to offer our families the magical experience of our youth and realise it is actually harder than we expected. With family and work commitments, planning and executing a memorable Christmas can take its toll though my focus is still to be spending time with my family and friends.”

The food and drink offering has also gone through its own particular journey, combining Spanish festive cuisine with British turkeys and all the trimmings.

“Here in Gibraltar our food is our culture and nothing marks our holidays more significantly than our special dishes for the occasion,” Santos says.

Brandy and mince pies are interchangeable with paella and sherry and polvorones much like Midnight Mass is as much a tradition as the Three Kings Cavalcade.

“My festive table traditions are a continuation of what my mother did. The get-togethers, the music and singing, midnight mass, the cavalcade, all these things are the customs that I hope continue for generations to come.”

One of Santos’ many strengths as a cultural leader is the way he has managed to bring his dreams into fruition, particularly with the setting up of the Gibraltar Academy for Music and the Performing Arts (GAMPA).

The project has gone from strength to strength, giving young people an opportunity to explore their musical and singing skills within a supportive, progressive community.

Therefore it is no surprise that music plays a large part of his Christmas activities.

“I have always sung in choirs so this time of the year means busy times of rehearsals and performances,” he says. 

“As Principal of GAMPA I get to prepare the Christmas programme for some very talented young performers. 

“At home I always play carols to get me going whilst wrapping presents or preparing food – it just puts me in a great festive mood!”

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Post-pandemic glee

The increased wealth in these times also adds to the shopping possibilities compared to his childhood. With top stores opening up on the Rock, Gibraltar has a far more services economy tailored to meet every need of a modern population, compared to the bygone days of being a servile colonial backwater.

“Each family will decide for themselves what gifts to buy and of course the high street stores have to advertise and sell – that is their business,” he reasons.

“I am glad that there are so many shopping options in Gibraltar now so everyone can make their own decisions on what to buy according to their budget.”

Christmas changed dramatically over the last three years with the pandemic, but the ever-positive Santos believes even that calamity had a silver lining.

“I think people in Gibraltar have always enjoyed the Christmas outings and public celebrations and these were missed over the Pandemic,” he says. “However we have also enjoyed staying at home, with just our immediate family and friends and not particularly feeling we have missed out. “I think people will choose a balance of both this year,” he adds.

In his role as mayor he will put on a special Christmas bonanza for the local kids, echoing his continual desire to promote their creativity above all else. 

“I hosted a Santa’s Meet and greet at City Hall on December 17,” he reveals.

“I did something similar last year and it was a roaring success so I wanted to give children the opportunity to meet Santa again this year.”

Santos’ success in Gibraltar has been his ability to marry the old with the new and that delicate balance, accompanied with hard work and ever-present familiarity has led to his rise within the community.

But the openly gay man has always kept his feet firmly on the ground, maintaining his friends and family close, something he insists on for the future too.

“I hope we keep our traditional family Christmases alive for many years to come,” he concludes.

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