SPANISH AND NOT-NOT-SO SPANISH HOLIDAYS: HALLOWEEN 2

So Halloween is as popular as ever in Madrid and some people are just plain unnerved by kids with vampire getups prowling around the neighborhood begging for candy.  What could rattle you more? 

             Why do the Spanish get uneasy about Halloween?  Well, a whole slew of reasons come into play here, but in short, to some this festivity represents to an invasion of old Spanish traditions by a crackpot commercialized Satan-driven pagan American invention polluting the great customs of the country, and those of Europe for that matter.    This is not some kind of conjecture on my part.  I have actually heard and even read these things.  There is the fear All Saints’ Day will fade into oblivion due to all those six-year-olds dressed up as witches and ghosts pandering for a few sweets. 

             Yeah, right.  All Saints’ Day has been slipping from most people’s minds for years, and it ain’t the Americans’ fault.  If anything, it’s the Spanish’s fault.  It’s a shame, but it was on its way out with or without the English teachers’ help.   For many, just about the only thing sacred about the day is that you can sleep in…unless of course you are a father, in such case, the rule does not apply…ever.  Ironically, celebrating Halloween in this country makes more sense because you are guaranteed a day off on November 1st

           That doesn’t mean Halloween hasn’t contributed to its obscurity.  Nowadays that’s nearly all young people talk ab0ut, which explains why the religious members rush out in force to save their day.   Ironically, with any luck the holiday, it may just be thanks to Halloween that All Saints’ Day enjoys renewed popularity.  That would be especially good news for the florists. 

           Others are wary because it is foreign and not really a part of the culture, and I can certainly sympathize with that.  But a little research proves that there are many traditions here in Spain which are considered uniquely Spanish but whose origins actually go back to another country.  The ubiquitous nativity scene at Christmas is an importation from Italy, for example.  So, Halloween is not a joint-venture created by the Coca-Cola Company and MacDonald’s Corporation, as some practically believe here.  It is a complex web of traditions and cultural twists and turns that has ended up with a product as we now it today.  Its origins of Halloween predate the Roman occupation of Great Britain.  The custom went over from Ireland and Scotland to the U.S. where the young children learned they had a sweet goldmine on their hands and embraced the new idea with immense joy – and its popularity increased.  Then it started spreading elsewhere.  My parents confirm that as early as the 1930s they were knocking at doors and performing a little lightweight extortion.    But it was in the 1950s and dawn of the TV era that the practice really took off. 

            Commercial interests do abound, no doubt about that, but that can be said of nearly many special days, except for maybe Labor Day.  On top of that, in a sense, this is just an Old World custom being bounced back from the New World.  If you listen and read enough about spooky traditions you learn that in some places in the north like Asturias and Galicia, ghosts and witches and goblins and such things were commonplace in folklore.  The use of the pumpkin to ward of the feared Santa Campaña in Galicia was practiced and probably still is in some of the more remote nooks of the regions.

           So there you have it.  Thanks to us English teachers and new technologies, we are returning to Europe a little bit of its past.  An emerging ancient tradition thanks or because of globalization and grammar!

SPANISH AND NOT-SO-SPANISH HOLIDAYS: HALLOWEEN 1

Well, everything has been stuffed back into the upper cabinet in a big sack like a bag of bones, and the Halloween season has finally come to an end.  Thank God.  I need another 365 days to recover.  And to think that it’s one of my favorite days of the year. 

         Years ago, no one celebrated the terror-filled day practically at all.  That makes sense because Halloween is not a Spanish tradition, much to the disappointment of those back home who feel that everything American should be core-curriculum in other cultures.  “What do you mean they don’t celebrate Halloween?”  I have heard on more than one occasion.   “What are they retarded or something?”

            “No.  They just aren’t Irish.”  Which of course produces a whole slew of reactions which have nothing to do with what I said.

            The fact is, nowadays, the younger Spanish generations do whip it up on this day.  More than ever.  But it has been a development as recent as iPhones.  Back in October of 1991, the festivity was even more remote to the poor Spaniards, mostly because they didn’t understand why we celebrated it.  Still, they enjoyed my parties and didn’t care how they dressed as long as they had enough to drink. 

             Then there was the issue of a jack-o-lantern.  I remember begging the fruit-stand guy at the supermarket to find a pumpkin for me to stab, disembowel and disfigure, and the guy produced something large, gray and oblong which reminded me of a tick that had been parasiting on a hippo for a week.  The poor fruit looked like it had been dead for several years.  “What the hell do you want me to do with that?”  I gawked. 

           Well, I did with it what I could, and crafted an illuminated monster so grotesque it actually worked perfectly with the spirit of the evening.   I fared little better in the following years as markets rarely had a ready supply of pumpkins.  

            At some point, though, someone caught on to the idea that importing this festivity of sorts (when you think about it, there really is not satisfactory word to describe exactly what kind of special day it is…because “holiday”, I’m sorry, does not suffice.) and especially saw there was a lucrative angle there that had been overlooked. Naturally, for any business to thrive what you need is demand, and that is where people like me came into play, I’m afraid to say.  

           In our attempt to bring our pupils closer to the English-speaking world, we used Halloween as a cultural bridge.  We could also try to use some fine structures in the meantime.  And I hate to admit, we’ve done a pretty good job of it.   Of course, what can you expect?  The concept is just ripe for widespread acceptation among young kids:  get dressed up in scary costumes, pretend you are a monster for a few hours, and haul in a nice bag of candy to boot.  Not bad, when you think about it.

           At the school where I work, on more than one occasion I have encountered resistance towards the commercialized pagan tradition that is penetrating the young Spanish mind.  This is no exaggeration.  I have literally exited a class only to cross paths with a priest, who was on his way in and prepared to remind those innocent striplings that what those days were all about was All Saints’ Day, a real Catholic holy day, not holiday, mind you.  Fair enough, until I tell them that Halloween means “The Eve of All Saints’ Day” and that the feast’s origins go back two-thousand years.   But that makes no difference to them.  It’s pagan!

           I can certainly feel for the Spanish wanting to preserve their own traditions and I understand the reservations of some of them to want to reject odd influences from abroad.  And I have to admit that there is something contrived about the way it is celebrated here.  And I would love to do something about stopping this rising tide where flower store owners who otherwise could not give two hoots about the day are urging their customers to get their pumpkins quick while they last.  I mean, it’s just a bit over the top.  But then again, there are a couple of factors that make the fight both pointless and absurd.  I’ll tell you about them later!

Justo and his Cathedral

Have I got a place for you to see the next time you are in Madrid!  And you have to see it with your own eyes because  just reading about it or looking up images online won’t do.

You know there are people who build castles in the air, and then there are those who say they are going to build a cathedral and actually do it.  About 12 miles due east of the capital, there is a small town called Mejorada del Campo which might have forever remained as an overlooked dot on your Google maps had it not been for a kind of modern wonder taking place there.  A man for the past 50 years has been building his own cathedral.  I ain’t kidding. 

It is the brainchild of Justo Gallego who is 85 years old.  He was born in Mejorada and as a young man decided to become a monk, so he joined the Trappist order (those are the guys who make those great Belgian beers.  Smart lad).  Before becoming ordained he came down with tuberculosis and had to leave the monastery.  According to the story, he was crushed and promised God that if he recovered he would do something as a show of love and appreciation.  He got better and decided to build a church.  That’s what I call being thankful.

He had no training whatsoever in architecture, engineering, building or carpentry.  On paper, he couldn’t have been able to piece together a Lego home.  But five decades later he is still going at it and the results are awe-inspiring. It was almost as if God had said: If you build it, they will come.   

Despite brief moments of fame, like in 2005 when he was featured on an Aquarius commercial, Justo’s momumental endeavor is still relatively unknown.  He estimates some 2,000 people come every summer to visit and even help (in the winter it must be substantially less), but that is a trifle number all said and told because it comes to little more than twenty a day.   Of these, many if not most are foreigners, who seem to be the ones who truly appreciate the marvel of it all.  I don’t know a single madrileño who has seen it.   Not one.  Whenever I mention it to someone from here, they kind of look at me with a confused expression on their faces and say, “Oh, yeah, I think I know who you’re talking about.” 

Not so surprisingly, not everyone shares his fans’ enthusiasm.  The Catholic church doesn’t support his cause, but that doesn’t surprise me, and others consider him an egocentric madman, which I find a bit absurd for a person who gets up before dawn ever day and humbly continues  his job. 

I had heard about this place for a couple of years now but never got to seeing it; that is until yesterday when I went with my family.  I was floored by its magnitude.  It’s enormous and it’s just absolutely incredible.   I couldn’t even begin to express the emotions that run through you as you see firsthand as they take up this already bulging entry.  Justo was there, of course, the way he is most days, quietly going about his business with the two or three helpers.  He is a friendly and courteous man, and he invites you to walk around and enjoy his work.  You find yourself staring from all angles at it to take in every detail and make sense of it all.  Awesome. 

I liked it so much, I returned this morning to show some more Americans who just loved it.    Maybe I can turn this into a new business.  I’m joking of course, but I would like to help spread the word.  I spoke to a woman from Germany today who was a filmmaker.  She was preparing a film and was hoping to start a foundation to support Justo’s dream.  I’ll keep you abreast of that if it materializes, because though Justo has come a long when in fulfilling his dream, he’s still got a long way to go.  Years and years.

You don’t have to be religious to admire his work.  Take it to a broader scale.  Consider his courage, his perseverence, his faith, his desire to live out a personal dream, and his pursuit of freedom.  These are universal characteristics worthy of admiration.