Lights from the East

The family are just about to complete the Christmas and New Year fortnight here in Northern Spain, ready to sail back over this weekend. Our last act was to watch the cavalgata of the three kings in Oviedo. Like all Catholic countries, the country marks the feast of the Epiphany, when the infant Jesus received gifts of gold, frankincense and myhrr from three mysterious wise men of the Orient. It’s a big deal, with thousands of people on the streets and hundreds of others in the processions. But there’s no doubt who are the stars of the show; Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, in their Disney-style chariots, doling sweets out to the cheering crowds.

I’ve seen it all before, back in 2008, and not much had changed. I think they were the same Disney chariots as back then.

Except one thing has changed spectacularly. Politics. And Spanish politics is trying to change cultures.

All the city’s Christmas decorations are now deliberately secular, this in a Catholic country which is responsible for the Christian beliefs in most of South America and a good part of South-east Asia. The usual nativity motifs and scenes have been removed, and replaced by bland ‘winter’ decorations. One resembles a cubist colour wheel, another something that wouldn’t look out of place on a science-fiction film set. What on earth has happened?

‘Podemos’ has happened. This populist uprising, a party that was only formed in 2014, took enough votes in the city’s 2015 elections to allow them to be part of a coalition government, with 6 representatives. Their brand of anti-system, anti-capitalist, anti-everything populism is now part of the region’s decision-making process. Including what happens to cultural events.

Take the religion out of this and just think of it from a cultural point of view. Years of creativity associated with the visual arts, artisan crafts and belenes (the Spanish tradition of creating intricate models of the Bethelehem events) link together communities, families and identity.  The plaza outside the cathedral was the home of lifesize belenes attracting visitors of all generations, providing a heart for the city’s Christmas celebrations. When I saw it empty this year, I assumed it was due to terrorism fears linked to last year’s attacks on Christmas markets.

No, it was a largely political decision, leaving the square naked save for some sparkly ‘winter solstice’ lights. The only place to see the beautiful arts and crafts is now in an indoor market. No doubt the thinking is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

Well, as a foreign visitor, I think that they’re out of their minds. Oviedo is typical of many continental cities with its easy-going street life; its identity is its tradition, its history, its culture and, yes, its religion. Start messing with this and you render a place soulless and materialistic.

‘Podemos’ takes its name from the Spanish verb meaning ‘we can’.

Such optimism is no doubt well intentioned, but I am a little unnerved by what I’ve seen. Just because ‘we can’ do something doesn’t mean to say we should then go and do it.


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