I’ve never been one for religions, myself. Being too skeptical to have faith in anything (I’m not even completely convinced about the existence of Richard Dawkins), I’ve always held belief to be something that other people do, and that’s fine so long as they let me get out of the way first. But even a card-carrying heathen like me has to be quietly impressed at some of the achievements; organised religions have built some cracking buildings, for example, and there’s nobody can hold a candle to them (ahem) for ceremony and ritual, whether you believe the rhetoric or consider it a work of fable.
Right now, though, I sense a darker and more corrosive fiction sneaking up on traditional Spanish life. In every shop window around the village appears the jolly, bearded face of the new kid on the block, the sales rep for the modern experiencia navideña.
For those not familiar with Spanish tradition, the character of Santa has only recently made inroads into Spanish life. Previously, children had to wait until the Christian festival of Epiphany – January 6th – to get their presents from Los Tres Reyes Magos. Now that Santa Claus is finally coming to town, on final approach behind his magic reindeer and bearing his well-thumbed lists of the naughty and nice, many of those same kids are hoping for a double helping from the hard-hit family purse, on December 25th and again on January 6th. Harried parents are feeling the pressure.
Surprisingly, Papá Noel, as he’s known here, is actually a little late on parade. For some years now the typical Spanish youngster has been used to drinking Coke, wearing denim jeans, watching Hollywood movies, listening to British or American music, and eating fast food from McDonald’s or Burger King; but the rites of Christmas were always uniquely Spanish.
Things usually kicked off around the 22nd of December with the drawing of the Christmas lottery (a tradition that’s been around since 1763 under Carlos III), this December date coinciding with the start of the school holiday. Now, of course, the commercial bandwagon is already rolling by the time the smoke has cleared in the aftermath of that other foreign invader, Halloween, which has so successfully given the festivals of Dia de Difuntos and Todos Los Santos a much-needed makeover with the indispensable addition of tacky costumes, tooth decay, extortion and petty vandalism.
Christmas Eve in Spain, La Nochebuena, has typically involved relatives and food:
“Por Navidad en casa y cerca de la brasa”, as the refrán goes (a brasa is a hot coal or burning ember, but essentially ‘Christmas at home, by the fireside’). it’s perhaps the biggest and most significant family get-together of the year, often followed by a trip to midnight mass, La Misa De Gallo. The commercial pressure to spend copious amounts on meaningless tat was notably absent. Not any more, it seems.
Perhaps the biggest recent influence on the Spanish mindset, especially for the young, has been the quantity of imported television programs. In recent years, popular series ranging from Friends to The Simpsons have introduced memes such as the Christmas tree with presents beneath, along with scenes of the massed crowds shopping excitedly as bands play in tinsel-decorated malls. Spanish TV advertising has now caught up, and every commercial break (and there are many) is filled with exhortations to buy the latest perfume, wristwatch or technological gadget, if you don’t want to spoil everyone’s festive season.
Little surprise that the older Spaniards seem a little uneasy with the new Christmas. It involves very little of any historical significance, a great deal of blatant consumerism, and the fulfillment of transitory and trivial fancies. It seems to be about nothing more than owning cool stuff and having hedonistic fun.
No wonder Santa looks jolly. He has a red convertible that can fly, and a list of where all the naughty girls live.
Have a happy and safe Christmas.