The streets are brightly lit with holiday decorations, mounds of grapes standing at the ready to accommodate the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight to ensure good luck. As the minutes tick past, the small town of Bérchules prepares to ring in the New Year.
Only it isn’t 31 December. It’s the first weekend of August.
You may also be interested in:
• Spain’s untranslatable secret to lunch
• Italy’s town pretending to be British
• The town that throws wine in the sea
In the grand scheme of head-scratching ideas, celebrating New Year's Eve in August must lie somewhere near the very top. However, Bérchules, nestled high in the Alpujarras region of Andalucía, has, for the last 25 years, done exactly that.
It was in the final hours of 1993 that this story begins. Preparations to welcome 1994 were complete, but the clock strikes never came.
“I was 11 at the time,” said Ismael Padilla Gervilla, now mayor of Bérchules. “Just before 20:00, all the lights in the town went out.” A power cut caused by bad weather meant that the small town would creep unceremoniously, and in almost pitch black, into 1994.
Just before 20:00, all the lights in the town went out
“We dined by candlelight” he continued, “then for hours we listened to an old battery-powered radio that my parents had brought back from their time in Germany – we never used to listen to that radio because we always watched TV – but that night it was really useful.”
Electricity was restored the following day, but the New Year had begun in a most regrettable manner. Later in the month a town meeting was convened. Frustration and anger was vented towards the electricity company that, in some eyes, had robbed the town of a new year. Yet through the discord a radical idea finally emerged.
Bérchules finally threw its New Year’s Eve party on 6 August 1994 – a move that would drastically alter the town’s course. Since then, those attending the festivities has risen dramatically. “Last August there were over 10,000 people here,” said Antonio Castillo Sanchez, president of the village’s New Year’s Eve Association.
“The original idea to wait until August was simply so that the bars, restaurants, shops and nightclubs could recover their losses from the past 31 December, and to take advantage of the summer tourists,” Padilla Gervilla said. “But it was such a success that we’ve continued celebrating it [then] ever since.”
If changing the date of New Year’s Eve sounds bizarre, it’s worth bearing in mind that 31 December hasn’t always been the last day of the year. It wasn’t until 46BC that Julius Caesar ordered the reformation of the original Roman calendar, which for the first time introduced 1 January as the start of the year.
But the practice fell away in the Middle Ages. Caesar and his astronomer had miscalculated the length of a solar year by 11 minutes, a mistake that added 10 days to the year by the mid-15th Century, by which time many European countries had chosen days of religious significance, such as Christmas, to mark the beginning of a new year. It wasn’t until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII and his astronomers corrected the length of the solar year and introduced the Gregorian calendar, that 1 January was re-introduced as the start of the year, and even then it was only initially adopted by predominantly Catholic European countries, including Spain. England would continue to celebrate the New Year on 25 March, known as Lady Day, until 1752, when it too adopted the new system.
31 December hasn’t always been the last day of the year
Located 1,319m above sea level in the foothills of Spain’s imposing Sierra Nevada mountain range, Bérchules is not an easily accessible place. From Granada, a road barrels freely south towards the Mediterranean, but at the Rules Reservoir the route swings east and winds slowly upwards through a rocky wildness, pocketed with blossoming almond trees that seem to hang desperately from the slopes.
Bérchules’ buildings are simple and whitewashed, the lanes narrow and winding. Once nicknamed ‘Paperos’ for its famed potatoes, the town now produces some of the finest cherry tomatoes in the region. Bérchules is also known for its iron-rich water, considered not only good for the muscles, but also for the heart: according to a message in blue-and-white tile above the fountain at the town’s entrance, those who drink its slightly effervescent water will find true love (or at the very least get married).
Preparations for the town’s New Year’s Eve party begin as early as January. August is traditionally a month of fiestas in Spain, and for a party of this size in a town with one road in and one road out, it's important to get everything just right.
“Security, parking, merchandise, waiters…” Castillo Sanchez quickly rattled off a mental checklist. “Then there’s the food.” Despite taking place in August, the celebration still incorporates culinary traditions typically reserved for the holiday season. Polverone and mantecado are types of shortbread certain to be found on any self-respecting Spanish Christmas table, and there are 3,000kg of it to supply the high demand. The typical Christmas dishes of turkey and veal are served alongside refreshing, regional summer favourites such as gazpacho and the similar tomato-based cold soup, salmorejo.
Three wise men on horseback amble through the crowds. Samba dancers saunter to a thudding beat, and a trusty donkey plods along while traditional sweets are hurled from giant sacks on its back to the excited children. Small pouches of a dozen grapes are sold for €1 to those wishing to stick with tradition, while a small shop does a roaring trade on Santa hats and reindeer horns.
“It’s Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Carnival, but in the summer,” Castillo Sanchez explained enthusiastically.
As the blistering heat of the day slowly abates, people gather in the town’s two main squares. The clock’s hands high on the village’s church tower inch slowly towards midnight. A thunderous roar splits the night air as the first chimes heralding the arrival of a New Year echo through the streets. Champagne corks rush skywards while artificial snow begins to rain down from above. Hugs, kisses and well wishes are exchanged in the typical Spanish carefree manner to friends and strangers alike.
This being Spain, the party has only just begun. The residents of Bérchules and their thousands of guests will continue singing Christmas songs and dancing under the warm night sky well into the next morning.
“It’s a magical place,” Carmen Espinosa, a pharmacist from Granada, told me wistfully. “The air is clean and pure from the mountains, with the smell of the Christmas food drifting through the town – it just feels so festive. Even as a visitor you feel at home here – there is so just much kindness.”
Like Júzcar, the town just under four hours away that was famously painted blue to advertise the Smurf movie – and chose to remain blue – Bérchules has found its niche. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the change, and the town is currently applying to have its alternative New Year’s Eve recognised by the Andalusian government as a Festival of Tourism Interest – an honour that can only be awarded after quarter of a century.
We managed turned the negative into an enormous positive
“We managed turned the negative into an enormous positive, and now we have visitors from all over the world,” Padilla Gervilla said proudly.
“Last weekend I was in the UK, in Brighton, and I met somebody who had heard of this small town – it was incredible,” Castillo Sanchez added. “You can find a wonderful street party anywhere in Spain. But only here in Bérchules can you find a new year in August. For me this is beautiful.”
Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.