As Gina and I reflected on this holiday season while enjoying a festive cosmopolitan a few evenings ago, I told her it was my best ever. She asked why. Here are a few significant reasons.
—I love new things. And moving to Barcelona has provided a multitude of them: new languages, new routines, new foods, new wines, new drinks, new relationships, new transportation, new neighborhoods, new art, new architecture, new customs, and so many more.
—The phrase (my paraphrase) “Peace on earth, goodwill toward
men humanity” has never meant more than these past few weeks. While I’m sure Spain has its political differences and challenges, on the streets, there is a peace and sense of collective consciousness like I’ve never sensed in America. Families walk arm in arm, older adults are treated with respect, and people establish eye contact and engage people experiencing homelessness—many seem to have a pocket full of change designated to share with unfortunate ones.
—Music and dance is everywhere. There are designated spaces for musicians in the metro and tourist areas. And it seems every people group is represented. I’ve seen sitars, pan pipes, accordions, marching bands, rock guitarists, flamenco guitarists, bongos, vocalists, and more. Yesterday on our metro, two young girls had a boombox and a mic and started breakdancing. She was so close to me that she brushed against me several times, laughing and smiling at me. It was unbelievable she could perform so joyfully and effortlessly in our crowded car as it swerved at high speeds through the tunnels. I struggled to think how I would have felt about it in America, but it was perfect here.
—I have a partner who desires me to be who I truly am. This single fact makes life come alive with joy. There is no need for falsehoods, posing, defense mechanisms, and pretense. I am a highly sensitive, highly sensual, highly creative person, and Gina has helped me feel secure in those characteristics. Instead of shaming me as I had in the past, she encourages me—she understands me like no other person on earth. The song we had performed at our engagement announcement was eerily prescient—”You Get Me.”
—For the first time in my life, I have total anonymity. Even in Austin and Dunedin, it was inevitable that I would run into people who knew me in my former life, and most times it would be a difficult and painful encounter. Here is bliss. Peace. And living only in the present.
—Barcelona has seduced me. Joan Maragall wrote a famous poem in which he called Barcelona the great enchantress, or some kind of sorceress, and in which the city has this dark enticing presence that seduces and lures people. As a sexual being (aren’t we all to some extent?), the openness and honesty of this city is a vast repudiation of the repression and prudishness of my religious past. Erotic vending machines, legal tantric massages, topless and nude beaches, cabarets, burlesque, museums of erotica, and the art of Picasso are all like a sensual playground for the little boy, adolescent, and young man in me that was never permitted to openly admit his desires and longings without being punished or shamed. Can you say free at last?
—Bodily functions are also not taboo. The two most iconic Christmas figures feature defecation to represent fertility. The caganers or ‘crappers’ are a popular nativity scene decoration here in Catalonia, where a defecating figure perched behind Mary and Joseph is said to symbolize fertility and bring luck and prosperity for the year ahead. As well as including crapping figures in their nativity scenes, Catalans also have Tió de Nadal, a jolly Christmas log that they stick in the fireplace every Christmas Eve. Tradition says you must order Tío Nadal to defecate while spanking him with a stick. The ever-smiling tree trunk waits for all the kids to go to bed before bringing them their presents.
—I have never really cared for Christmas lights and have never decorated my house. It always seemed so materialistic and meaningless. But here, the festive lights and myriad parades throughout the city are magic and replete with meaning and history. They make one feel alive and filled with joy.
—I have always hated the lottery and never—not once—purchased a ticket. But Spain’s big fat Christmas lottery, El Gordo, is the biggest in the world and has been held almost without interruption since 1812. There are huge queues in the streets to buy tickets, lots of superstitions and theories, and absolute joy and champagne among the winners. Orphans brought up at Madrid’s San Ildefonso School have been responsible for singing out the winning Christmas lottery numbers since 1771. Nobody knows how such a peculiar way of calling the numbers came about. Still, legend has it that San Ildefonso’s orphans once chanted prayers for alms through the streets of Madrid. They were then chosen for Spain’s Christmas lottery because, as orphans, they were considered to be less prone to cheating. I still have not purchased a ticket, but seeing those children singing the numbers warmed this heart of mine in a way I can’t quite explain.
—The Spaniards love their nativity scenes, and many municipalities display a public one in the run-up to Christmas. But they don’t always follow the traditional format of the Holy family in a stable surrounded by farm animals. Some towns stage a “living” Belén—the Spanish word for Bethlehem—with real actors and animals. But others choose to make a social statement with the scene. A few years ago, Barcelona caused controversy by displaying a modern take on the biblical scene with the figures depicted in what looks like a flea market or “a load of old tat,” as some critics described. There is one called Cuitat Noel in a fabulous posh shopping center two blocks away from our new home, which is unbelievable. I have attached a photo, but it does not do it justice.
—Yes, this has been my best Christmas ever. And it is not finished. We plan to attend a New Year’s Eve party from 8 pm until 3 am at one of our favorite bars, La Whiskeria. Chris, the owner, has warmly welcomed us to the city, and he said we would partake in another Spanish tradition—locals scoff up twelve grapes as the clock strikes midnight. The 12 uvas tradition is said to have begun at the start of the century when vine growers in Alicante (eastern Spain) had such an abundant harvest that they had to devise a way of selling the grapes before they went off. The custom has now spread to many Latin American countries as a way of bringing prosperity for the year to come. The celebration will also feature specialty drinks, tapas, and a burlesque show. Fun!!
—And the biggest day of Christmas is yet to come. Epiphany is traditionally Spain’s main festive holiday when children receive presents brought not by Santa Claus but by the Three Wise Men. Huge Three Kings parades or cabalgatas are held in towns and cities across Spain on the evening of January 5th, when children line the streets to catch sweets thrown into the crowds by Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. A ‘blacked up’ person often portrays the latter. However, in recent years, there has been a move to find black actors to play the role due to the controversy the outdated practice has caused. Oh, and by the way, Pope Benedict XVI claimed that the Three Wise Men originally came from Andalusia. Maybe that’s why Spain loves them so much.
Yes, this Christmas is my best ever. I’m so grateful.
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