Friday, 27 February 2009

On fiestas and festivals and such.

At the end of October a little train appeared at the start of the Principe shopping street. In fact, it was not a train at all but a machine for roasting chestnuts, disguised as an old-fashioned steam engine. I also started to see signs here and there for magosto, the chestnut festival, a speciality of Galicia and a few other northern regions of Spain.

I had first come across
magosto a couple of years earlier when my college's international Comenius project took me and a few other teachers together with some students to a school in Cambre, la Coruna. On our first day in the school we discovered that lessons for the afternoon were cancelled so that students could take part in games and activities related to magosto. My students were perplexed and so were some of the teachers; as far as they were concerned, chestnuts were conkers and you didn't eat them but put them on a string and tried to smash your opponent's prize conker. It was just as difficult explaining that to the gallegos as it was persuading Salford seventeen year olds to eat chestnuts! But the roast chestnuts were delicious!

Hot on the heels of
magosto came Hallowe'en, an American (not even British) import which has overshadowed somewhat the more Spanish observance of Todos los Santos, All Saints Day. I had to correct the everso helpful Monica at the bank about the date of Hallowe'en. Her small son goes to a bilingual nursery where he spends part of the day speaking English, after a fashion. He had told her, correctly, that Hallowe'en was on Friday 31st October and she had tried to persuade him that he was wrong, that it was on Saturday 1st November, probably because some of his small friends were having parties on the Saturday.

The Saturday, of course, was Todos los Santos, when Spaniards traditionally take flowers to the cemetery and tidy up family graves, just like at the start of Almodovar's "Volver". In Mexico, so I am told, they go so far as to make a party of the occasion, taking food and drink so that the deceased members of the family can join in the celebration: maybe a little too extreme! Whatever the case, in Vigo bakers' shops were selling
huesos de santos (saints' bones), little marrow bones made of marzipan, the florists advertised special offers throughout the preceding week and all the shops, except the bakers', closed all day on Saturday 1st November.

That celebration was no sooner over and done with than Santa's little elves got busy. The shops started wishing us Happy Christmas, yes, in English, in all their window displays. El Corte Ingles began to play Christmas tunes, yes, mostly English. And the street decorations began to go up. We were woken in the middle of the night by the noise of decorations being strung across our street. Every street had stars, bells, snowflakes, angels and other Christmassy objects hung from their lamp-posts. Down by the harbour they had what looked for all the world like seahorses made of Christmas lights! Big, important shopping streets merited stars AND angels! Our street, however, being quite narrow and less visible, just had a series of sausage-like objects (all right, made of sparkly Christmas lights!) strung from one side to the other at regular intervals. I felt strangely let down!

There then followed a whole series of letters to the local papers about the rights and wrongs of switching on the Christmas lights. Was it ecologically sound? What about the carbon footprint? In this time of crisis, could one justify spending huge amounts of money lighting up the city? On the other hand, did we not all need some brightness in our lives to lighten the gloom of winter and the great economic problems facing us all? In the end a compromise of sorts was reached and the lights were switched on for about two hours in the late afternoon, early evening. On a December visit to Pontevedra, though, I noticed that their lights were still blazing away as midnight approached!

When we returned to Spain after a Christmas visit to the UK, the street decorations soon disappeared. The Happy Christmas signs in the shops were replaced with
SALES, REBAJAS, REBAIXAS, SOLDES, SOLDI. Every language imaginable encouraged us to SPEND, SPEND, SPEND. Only now are we getting the notices of the last days of the sales rapidly approaching.

However, I began to suspect some of the street decorations had been forgotten. At the junction of Urzaiz, Principe and Colon (Columbus Street - not a part of the human body), at Puerta del Sol and in Plaza de la Constitucion huge canopies of lights had been constructed and remained there, unused! Maybe someone believed in the old superstition that if decorations were not taken down by Twelfth Night they had to stay up for the whole year on pain of bringing misfortune down on one and all? And then, it all became clear; they remained in place for

Principe was festooned with carnival masks. Across Urzaiz, in big, bold lights, veryone was welcomed to "ENTROIDO", Gallego for not actually carnival but "entrance" as this festivity marks the beginning of Lent.

Spanish friends tell me that their city does not do as much for Carnaval as some places do. "Mucho mirar, poco participar" : a lot of looking, poor at participating.

But there were verbenas or street concerts taking place, lots of competitions and games and plenty of clowns, Zorros, Snow Whites and Minnie Mouses (Minnie Mice?) around.

Now, in the United Kingdom, we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, to symbolise giving up rich foods and sweet things for Lent. Here they have a whole carnival, culminating on Ash Wednesday with the
Entierro de la Sardina - the Burial of the Sardine.

There are processions through the streets, lots of audience participation and finally, at around ten thirty at night the sardine is buried.

Aside from the fact that they appear to be starting the period of abstinence a day later in Spain than in the UK, I wondered why they buried a sardine, of all things. And it's not just in Vigo. Television news teams reported the burying of this sardine all over the place in Spain.

Apparently, it is a tradition which began in the nineteenth century; the sardine symbolised the meat which was not to be eaten throughout Lent. Nowadays, my Internet source told me, for most people it just symbolises the end of
Carnaval, which, of course, includes in its name the meat - carne - which will not be eaten for a while, a hard thing for the Spanish, but that is a story for another day!

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