Navidades, & el año nuevo

13 January 2009

Mosaic Fountain (Better)

The twelve days of Christmas, whose gifts given to the sweethearts of traditional English song are golden rings, and milkmaids, and partridges roosting in pear trees, begin on the day of the birth itself and last through the 6th of January, the Epiphany, celebrated in Spain as the Día de los Reyes, the day the three Parthian kings or sorcerers arrive bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh, & the day too that Spanish children are showered with brightly wrapped presents & swell the parks and avenues of the cities in the morning and the early afternoon, bundled adorably in woolen coats, proving out their jugetes.

If my 1º de ESO are any indication, kids receive money in colored envelopes, clothing, some kind of electronic gewgaw – mobile phones, or a Wii, or robotic dogs, or walkie talkies. Local news films parents painstakingly arranging the gifts that come from the imaginary los Reyes, a civic myth more enduring than the imported Santa Claus, with a lot of reassuring discourse: the crisis, our announcers report, has not dampened the inimitable spending power of the Three Kings, thank goodness, who continue buying expensive consumer goods & wrapping them shinily. This is followed always by street footage of the latest winners of the lotería de la Navidad, waving their tickets & spraying champagne into the air, surrounded by a cheering crowd of people from the barrio. Commercials advertise perfume & sparkling wine (cava).

The night before los Reyes there are parades throughout Spain – big illuminated floats & marching bands rolling through the main streets of Jaén, closed to traffic, Santa’s helpers & costumed childrens’ mascots throwing caramels & candies wrapped in wax paper by the handful from bottomless sacks into the crowds, people holding umbrellas upside-down to catch the sweets. The avenues are paved in confetti, colored plastic wrap, popped balloons, candy wrappers, noisemakers, and paper hats.


Something like 9/10 of Spain self-identifies as Catholic, even though a vanishingly small proportion are church-going. This gives an odd quality to religious expression in civic life, very different from the States: the iconography & trappings are everywhere & taken for granted; the actual practice is rare. Zapatero’s PSOE government (Partido Socialista Obrero Español), in power since 2004, has had an uneasy relationship with the Church, as socialists tend to, & there are murmurs here & there over, say, crucifixes hung in government elementary schools – articles in El País or El Mundo, for example, about religion in public life, or the subject cropping up parenthetically in casual conversation, so you know something’s going on even though you can’t quite say for sure what. While Feliz Navidad is what you say to the old woman whose stroller you carry up four flights of stairs in your apartment building, & while ‘Navidades’ are used to refer to the entire season (almost the equivalent of ‘holidays’ in English), you will occasionally see ‘Felices fiestas‘ in a store window.

Still & all, my instituto had in the lobby an enormous nativity scene, seen also in storefronts throughout Jaén, with hand-painted ceramic figurines of Nuestra Señora and the infant Christ and the Reyes Magos and some of the animals, decorated with wood chips & other trimmings the older students had done in art class & surrounded by colored electric lights. On some terraces in the pueblos hang red cloth banners, almost the quality of beach towels, imprinted with a cherub-like infant Christ, painted with the same loving hyperrealism of a day-glo portrait of Elvis on black velvet, raising two fingers in blessing, a halo around his head, and beneath the exclamation, ¡He Nacido! , roughly equivalent to “He is born!” – both share the characteristic grammar of Christianity, where the birth & death of the Christ are in the eternal present, his return always imminent.

Navidades are celebrated with jamón, sold as whole cured legs with the trotters still on, cava brut, paté, turrón, wines & cheeses, giant luxury fish, cakes, sweets, & magdelenas. A Christmas turkey is typically served. Santa Claus is well-known because of global capitalism – he tosses sweets out from the floats, between Disney princesses & soaring orchestral versions of Jingle Bells, or hangs, a plush miniature figure, off of a rope with his bag of toys, dangling from apartment terraces, as though he were trying to climb up.


On Christmas Eve I attended a Catholic mass in the cathedral of Sevilla, the third largest in the world, a massive & soaring Gothic-Baroque building built on the ruins of a mosque taken when the city was reconquered in 1248; the minaret tower & certain portions were preserved, the tower stripped & hung with bells inscribed with biblical verses. Inside, innumerable chapels dedicated to saints, & saints’ bones wrapped in red cloth in the sacristy tied with string, with the name written on a small label & sealed with wax & mounted in a glass & gold.

The high altar was behind a high iron cage, and there were folding chairs out to either side of the pews for Christmas crowds, and for the tourists, which were many – French, southeast Asian, Italian, English, some Americans, from what I could see. The bishop sang the mass, & there was no choir, & the whole thing was mostly conducted in vernacular Spanish, the liturgy & structure roughly the same as the High Anglican [Episcopalian] service I was used to. The Nicene Creed, for example, was note-for-note the same – a strange feeling, to say the least, sitting on a folding chair in that cavernous buttressed nave, lit up by electric lights, listening to a Spanish bishop sing the same song I’d fallen asleep to as a four year-old in Michigan.

The mishmash of ancient Hebrew, old Greek, & Sumerian translated into Vulgate Latin translated into King James’ English is what, unavoidably, I think of when I think of the Word of God, so I felt a shock of almost Brechtian alienation to hear a different language retranslate translation into the vernacular. It’s all wrong, you kneejerk unconsciously, and then catch yourself.

Spanish, for instance, doesn’t distinguish between ‘meat’ & ‘flesh’ – it is all carne, and the Word Made Flesh is la Palabra hecho carne, the word made meat. ‘Our Lord’ comes out as Señor, the most basic term of address. The word for ‘people’ strikingly, is pueblo, which means not just the town, but a people, a nation, a comprehensive & communal group linked by mutual responsibility & obligation. “The people of God” becomes “el pueblo del Dios” (‘We the people’ in the U.S. Constitution becomes Nosotros, el pueblo de los Estados Unidos), so that there is an identification at the basic, root, moral center of the godly language with the village, and not the City, of God. There is no such word in a Spanish Catholic mass as elevated as mankind. We are all hombre, man at the most basic. The language of the mass as a whole seemed more stripped-down & everyday than that of the Anglican English, words at their simplest, without the archaic flavor of, for instance thee and thou, or forgive their trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I have a feeling of real communion, even though I don’t take it (being Protestant, after everything), seeing European & Asian & scattered world Catholics, rise, separated by language and culture and history, to take a communion wafer, and I reflect on the enduring power of this institution, the Church, even still. There are many tourists in the arcades & in the nave. We are made embarrassed by an old Spanish man, in a faded cardigan & three-day stubble & glasses behind us, who carries a black, well-thumbed hymnal & knows the words & responses & is the only one in this section of folded chairs singing back to the bishop.


You return to a city you visited once a different person, in a different capacity, & it’s like coming back to a completely different city – one that, even more disorientatingly, has the same important landmarks, has fragments that out of the unfamiliar will leap out at you & be suddenly, unmistakably home, in the midst of the rest of things, which have unfolded in a slightly different way & rendered themselves strange. The city you live in & the city you visit in a four-star hotel with your entire family & the city you bum through with a ragged crew of students and expatriates & the city you are shown by someone who grew up there are not the same city. Jaén during la Fería de San Lucas*, and Jaén shivering under the wet, slick onslaught of late November rains*, and Jaén* at the Navidad are three different places, and it seems to me you don’t know a place until you’ve seen it in all seasons, and maybe not even then.


I ate two Christmas comidas this year. The first, the instituto’s Christmas dinner (lunch doesn’t quite serve, even though it started at 3; think of it as a Sunday dinner) was a prix fixe, four-hour affair before the break in a typical (there’s that Spanish again: típico) restaurant in the pueblo, el Mirador, with a private dining room & panoramic views of the infinite multitude of olive groves in fruit below the snowcapped Sierra Máginas & old rural tools, butter churns, ploughs, saddles, hanging from the ceiling or mounted decoratively in the corner. There were endless bottles of house rioja, & a succession of platters in the center of the table: a variety of cured hams, aged manchego, whole prawns, fried calamari, croquettes, four different kinds of olives, other bits & pieces, before the main plates arrived – chops of pork, a cut of beef, or fish, if I remember correctly. Every place setting had a full set of silverware, a wine glass, a beer glass, and a small loaf of bread wrapped in cloth, set to the left, which in Spain is practically a utensil.

A teacher had brought his guitar & made photocopies of the lyrics to villancicos, Spanish Christmas carols, which are adapted from popular preindustrial working songs (villancico comes from the same root as villain, or villager) – peasant hymns, harvest songs, centuries old, appropriated & laden with religious lyrics. A classroom full of my children taught me “Los Peces en el Río” (the musical characteristics of your typical villancico are, for lack of better English words, unmistakably flamenco in rhythm, the melody Moorish or gítano or Iberian).

American carols: I’d taught them “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town,” written in 1934 for the NBC variety show, “The Chase & Sandborn Hour,” led by the famed comic Eddie “Banjo Eyes” Cantor, & “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” made up five years later by an ad man working the Montgomery Ward department store account.

Afterwards: flan, café, cigarettes, obscene improvised flamenco songs about people from Cadíz, chupetos of dark, sweet rum, and dense, nutty cakes wrapped in wax paper with white frosting & cinnamon.

My second comida, on Christmas day, was with the family, at the impossibly posh five-star Hotel Alfonso XIII in Sevilla, built over ten years and finished in 1929, with its glassed-in atrium, its vaulted dining room, the mix of Moorish & romanesque or Gothic motifs common in newly Catholic Spain between the 13th and 17th centuries and in vogue again at the end of the 19th. There, again, a small loaf of bread wrapped in cloth at every place setting, and again, a fixed menu for the holiday. A different wine paired with exquisite precision to each course. The prices had been lowered, slightly, to accommodate the crisis. I wore a tie. I never go out to eat in restaurants in Spain; in this, too, the city is different when your family comes, knowing no Spanish, and suddenly you are a group of 6, & sitting down at siesta. You can barely squeeze everyone in at the bodega de Santa Cruz, where, in the grand & overwritten tradition of Sevillano tapas bars, they really do chalk up your tab on the wood bartop with a kind of wet nub of chalk, lines splitting the clusters of people crowded around the cups of wine or beer, so that the bar is segmented radially, like a sundial.


I had a fever at New Year’s, in Granada, where the graffiti is cryptic & the interior of the cathedral is painted a blinding white in place of bare stone. But fever & all, I still found myself on a street off the end of the Gran Vía, running past the Reyes Católicos seated on their marble throne dedicated to Columbus, running because everyone else was running, towards the plaza de Carmen, so that we wouldn’t miss the New Year.

My black oxfords seasoned with champagne & confetti & broken glass. Cinders from the low rooftop fireworks in my hair. Having dodged corks, a bottle in everyone’s hand, going off with their hollow, muted pops at the start of the New Year, champagne spraying through the air. In Spain you eat grapes for luck (uvas de suerte), one for every toll of the bell striking twelve. There is no countdown. The night is not New Year’s Eve, but la Nochevieja, the Old night, and you do not shout the seconds until the new tips over & supplants the old – you swallow the last twelve tolls of the bell, the indeterminate place in between the ending & the beginning, the moment that midnight has struck but before it is finished striking, the moment of suspension. There’s no countdown – it’s a sendoff, not a waiting game.

In the plaza, there, packed with people, all of them holding a bottle of champagne & a handful of grapes, we didn’t even hear the bells. Nobody did. We started eating grapes, the seeds in, swallowing them anyway, when the champagne corks started to pop, & by the time we were done & drinking champagne the fireworks had started & they were exploding so low you could feel the heat. Me, black tie, sweating out my fever, seeds in my teeth, I had a swallow of cava with everyone else – ten days with my family & my Spanish had already depreciated, I was thinking in English – and I took in that familiar & unfamiliar city, Granada, the city that had been new before & would be new to me again, and I still don’t know what the new year’s going to bring or where I’m going, I think I know less than I did when I came here, if that’s possible, but still and all:

When you come back to school after the New Year you are greeted by every single teacher you see with a handshake or a hug or a kiss on the cheek, you take your coffee with them & they pay, as per usual, and they wish you & you wish them in return, “Feliz año nuevo.” This – you can’t help yourself – this feels like a homecoming, too.

5 Responses to “Navidades, & el año nuevo”

  1. Amanda Cameron Says:

    Dear Jim

    That was beautiful, I adore you.



  2. Buster Says:

    A great portrait of a time, place and events.

  3. John B. Says:

    Just for writing this, I’m gonna give you a little link-love. Expect, maybe, tens of visitors. I hope you have some folding chairs.

    Happy New Year to you.

  4. John B. Says:

    Just another quick observation re your passage on religious language: When I was living in Mexico, I was struck by how God is addressed in the familiar; I’d joke with my students that if they could use tu when praying to God, they could use it with me, too (it was a little unsettling to have adults twice my age addressing me as usted). But the KJV’s thees and thous are the familiar form in English, too; you, once upon a time, was the formal–the Quakers got in trouble in England because they refused to use “you” when addressing magistrates. So, we’ve not really lost that sense of familiarity and intimacy, but our loss of the familiar in everyday conversation can make it easy to forget that intimacy, such that it’s startling to hear it spoken right out loud in Spanish.

    The status of the Catholic church in Mexico is much the same as what you describe here, reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s description of the South as being “Christ-haunted,” if not exactly Christ-centered: Churches everywhere, usually all but empty even on Sundays. When I’d ride the bus and we passed a church, even the people with their backs to the church would cross themselves, even, in some cases, before those who could actually see the church started crossing themselves–yet I seriously doubted all these folks were regulars at Mass.

    Anyway. Thanks–again–for this marvelous post and for bringing back some memories by way of association.

  5. Jim Sligh Says:

    As in earlier Shakespeare, especially, when the lovers always use “thou.”

    Being a writer & reader may actually make me a less effective teacher of English. I got sidetracked a few weeks ago by the music teacher at my school, who is getting English certified, into talking about how the language really did have a tu form, “thee” & “thou” . . . – this linguistics lesson, while interesting to a native speaker, might be less than useful if the person you’re teaching really wants advice on, say, the deal with phrasal verbs. (I didn’t even know about these until a month ago. They terrify Spanish speakers. How do you remember that “to take on” is to challenge, “take off” can be either leave or remove, “take in” to care for or to have tailored, “take out” a type of food or an assassination? Why does “take after” mean resemble and “take back” reappropriate?)

    I hadn’t heard that phrase of O’Connor’s, but it’s lovely; Andalucía, perhaps, is Moor-haunted as much as anything else. I almost put in a clipping from the New York Times published in March two years ago about efforts to build a mosque in Sevilla; the first site proposed caused massive public outrage & was defaced by the head of a pig.

    I think Catholicism in particular has fallen off in Spain because of its close association with Franco’s regime. Reading traveller’s tales from the late 60s or early 70s is like reading about a completely different Andalucía than the one I live in, albeit with a lot of the same sights (and, in the case of English-language writers, exactly the same romantic tropes).

    I very rarely hear “usted” in Andalucía. Of course, the accent drops the “s” at the end of words anyway, so the distinction between formal & informal is elided with surprising commonality. My kids call me by my first name.

    “God addressed in the familiar.” I like the way you put this.

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