far too much writing, far too many photos

As you know, if you’ve read any of this journal’s entries from last month, the arrival of deep winter to northern Vermont at the beginning of November drove me to lighting candles and playing far too much Christmas music. Since arriving in Madrid — two weeks ago today — with its gentler, friendlier weather, I haven’t felt the need to crank up the holiday atmosphere. A few days back, on the 15th, the realization that el día de Navidad was only ten days off and steaming steadily in this direction jolted me back into tossing Christmas tunes onto my little boombox CD player. Not that I have many tunes to choose from — only “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “A Star In The East” made the trip. Which, considering I tend not to go for traditional Christmas music, has been fine. I skip over the one or two authentic traditional tunes sung by authentic kids on “Charlie Brown” (that’s right, I skip over the singing children – so sue me). And “A Star In The East,” a haunting, extremely beautiful recording of medieval Hungarian Christmas music by the Anonymous Four, works just fine for a weirdo like myself.

Whatever other Christmas atmosphere I get comes by way of my normal travels around Christmastime Madrid. Or via field trips, like last Saturday evening’s jaunt to the annual Christmas Fair at la Plaza Mayor. Normally one of the city’s mostly intensely concentrated points of tourism, the plaza is taken over for the month of December by the Fair, changing the atmosphere in drastic fashion.

The city center is currently aglow with holiday lights and the energy of the crowds surging through the area — shopping, eating, walking, in groups of family members, friends, couples. It’s a joy to pass through it all, people-watching, smelling aromas of food from various tiendas, passing street musicians. At least until one gets into the very center of Sol, where the pedestrian traffic becomes intensely congested, a state worsened by the ubiquitous black market street vendors, who lay their wares out on either side of the thoroughfare, though not actually at its edges, so that the overabundant foot traffic is squeezed into a narrow channel running along the center of whatever pedestrian way one is passing through, making the trip slow and arduous. (The key is making one’s way to the margins of the thoroughfare, to pass along the thin strip of space behind the vendors, which sounds easier than it is.)

Last Saturday night, the main streets, sidewalks and side streets between Sol and la Plaza Mayor were swamped with holiday revelers and vendors, much of the traffic swirling in the direction of la Plaza Mayor, so that all one had to do was, er, go with the flow, slow as that flow may be. The centuries-old warren of narrow cobblestone streets that surround the plaza leads toward the various entrance archways, at which point you suddenly find yourself in an enormous expanse of open space, bounded on four sides by stately, relatively austere Baroque architecture — tiendas/restaurants on ground level, offices/pisos above. The contrast between the trip up the winding, constricted streets and the abrupt opening away of the Plaza is quite a sensation, heightened when the winding streets feeding into the plaza are packed with people. And at the same time dampened a bit right now because the Plaza is not the open space it is most of the year. Currently, several rows of booths fill the center of the plaza, while the periphery is lined with Christmas tree stalls and other rough-edged commercial concerns.

Despite the number of booths, they only consist of three of four types — standard decorations, religious decorations, joke articles (”artículos de broma”– masks, wigs, funny glasses, plastic vomit, etc.) and then there are stalls that combine those in different ways. Meaning there’s a whole lot of duplication of wares, loads of stalls selling essentially the same stuff. Which doesn’t seem to matter -– there appears to be plenty of business to go around.

And what, you might ask, is with all the gag items? December 28th is Spain’s version of April Fools Day — el Día de los Santos Inocentes. Originally a day designated in commemoration of the massacre of children ordered by King Herod, somewhere along the line it became a day to play practical jokes and carry on in hilarious ways. How? Why? Good questions. So far I haven’t found any source of information that provides a link. Regardless, somewhere during the passing of the centuries, it became an occasion far more lighthearted than originally intended.

People of all ages clustered around the various stalls, checking out the available goods, groups of young folks and families moving slowly up and down the aisles. Wigs were a hot item on Saturday night, mostly wigs whose individual strands were made of acetate or something similar, colored metallic shades of blue, purple, lavender. Between the time I arrived and the time, the number of wigs Fair-goers sported increased drastically, along with big, floppy Santa hats — red with white trim, decked with tiny blinking chaser lights, all playing a high-pitched, tinny-sounding, computer-music version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Chinese folks stood around selling that kind of stuff — hats, canes, little toys and stuffed animals, all pumping out the same tune. They were everywhere, doing an aggressive sales job, so that by the end of my trip to the plaza, the identical, increasingly annoying rendition of Beethoven’s ditty was everywhere.

Another recurring element: a sign in the stalls selling joke stuff which read “HAY BOMBAS DE AGUA” (essentially, WE HAVE WATER BOMBS). None were flying around the plaza, but I get the growing impression that Dec. 28 may turn out be an interesting day.


A Bitter Christmas

by Jane Siberry

It was the night before Christmas

and all through the house

the children were excited, hoping for snow.

It looked like it might snow,

but no, no, no.

Good. I’m glad.

The next morning

father had set the alarm clock

but it didn’t go off,

so the whole household

slept all the way through Christmas day.

Good, I’m glad.

And then they thought

We’ll still open all

our presents the day after Christmas

so they raced down the stairs,

they flew down the stairs,

they streamed down the stairs into the living room,

and there…




Good, I’m glad.

(From Jane Siberry’s excellent 1997 CD “Child”)

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