Christmas peña

Every year, exactly at midnight on December 24, the Christ child is reborn everywhere in Spain, an event that is celebrated even by atheists -- because in Spain, the atheists are all Catholics. And for all those in the Catholic tradition, whether atheists or believers or agnostics, the celebration requires smiles, giving of gifts, singing of songs and the consumption of lots of sweets and liquors. Really getting into the spirit of things, two of our local atheists (he is named for the Archangel Michael and she for the immaculate conception, but they don't let that trouble them) hosted a special peña, or flamenco song-fest, in the chilly room where we usually gather on Friday nights for a peña and (some of us) on Saturdays for lessons on flamenco guitar. But only one of us, a sturdy, mustachioed gitano Domingo, was up to vocal performance, while Rubén, our young guitar teacher, kept the flourishes and compás. Cante jondo ("deep song") explodes from the chest, whistles through the throat, cries out with an intensity that shakes the room, when someone like Domingo is al cante. The lyrics are never easy to make out, at least for us payos (non-Gypsies), but from what I could make out, the songs weren't about the Christ-child. Mostly they were extended sexist jokes, not meant to be taken seriously, with clever rhymes.

It was great fun, livelier than gatherings I remember back in the Midwest. I think that's because in the U.S. (where there are no atheists), all the Catholics, Jews and Muslims are Calvinists.

We've been lucky in Carboneras. While the rest of Spain was suffering terrible weather (record snowfall in the north, disastrous floods in other parts of Andalucía), we had sun on Christmas day, then heavy rain on Boxing Day, but sun and warmth today. As we watch the news and the TV reviews of all the disasters of this past year, we feel strange to be so privileged, and aware of how precarious anybody's well-being is. Because I wanted to hear a voice that contemplated disaster without succumbing to despair, I just read (or maybe reread -- I must have read at least a version of it in high school) this little novel: Candide, ou l'Optimisme. It was in a way reassuring to see that the world's injustices, including slavery, abuse of women, terrorism, war and theft are no worse today than back in 1759, when the young German idealist from Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia began his adventures in most of the known world.

Image source: Instituto Cervantes de Múnich