There are three hoary old chestnuts that never fail to get rolled out in the weeks before Christmas, about the same time as the torrons and pannetoni – typical Yuletide foods – are stacked up in industrial quantities on Catalan supermarket tables. Chestnut one, repeated by everyone except children, is that Christmas is really for children. Chestnut two is that it is a family occasion (as exemplified by the Catalan saying ’Per Nadal, cada ovella al seu corral’: ’For Christmas, every lamb to its own pen’). And chestnut three, which was probably already doing the rounds within a year of Jesus’s birth, is that Christmas has become so commercial this year.
Let’s start with chestnut one: children undoubtedly get a magical kick out of Christmas which has long been out of the imaginative reach of adults (unless they drink an unseemly amount of cava). As is by now pretty well-known, in Catalonia this magic consists of feeding a log until, on Christmas morning itself, it provides a large number of small presents from its underbelly after it has been whacked by stick-wielding infants who sing songs urging it to defecate. My partner and myself, however, wanted to complement this Catalan tradition with those from our respective countries (the Netherlands and England). So we celebrated the big Dutch Xmas festival, which takes place on December 5 (the day of Sint Nicolaas) by getting together with some Dutch and Dutch-Catalan couples so that a page in blackface – yes – who works for a king who comes from Madrid – yes – could distribute gifts to the youngsters present. I myself wanted to keep the English custom of hanging a sock at the end of the bed on Christmas Eve so that Santa Claus could pop in and fill it to the brim. We ended up doing all three things, but our children made it clear that what they liked best was beating seven shades of excrement out of a defenceless piece of wood, so we stuck with that.
As for Christmas being a family event, that’s quite tricky if you’re a foreign resident and what’s left of your family live in the countries of your birth and a persistent pandemic makes it unadvisable to travel.
And as for Christmas being commercial, that’s as obvious as the sun in August. Why else do all those ads for toys, perfumes, cava and – once again – torrons pop up, Groundhog Day-like, year after year at this time of year? After all, Christmas is all about giving and receiving. Which involves going into shops – or on websites – and paying money. So there we have Christmas in a nutshell: a bit of magic if you’re under eight, a bit of family (depending on your circumstances) and lots of commerce.
But wait, I hear someone predictably say, isn’t it also a spiritual festival? Well, less than 10% of Catalans are regular church goers, which isn’t much of a start. On top of which, there have long been doubts about the authenticity or even the physical – as opposed to mythical – existence of the Christ: all his miracles are repeat performances of ones which are in the Old Testament (to give just two examples among many: the virgin birth is in Judges, 13; and story of the loaves and fishes, in 2 Kings; etc.). It’s not sure either where Jesus was born, given that Nazareth doesn’t appear in the historical record until 4CE, and the Bible’s other option, Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David and the burial ground of the Greek god of wheat Adonis – Bethlehem means ’the house of bread’, in Hebrew – seems too symbolically convenient. We also don’t know when Jesus was born, given that the 6th-century monk who fixed the year currently used made a seven-year slip-up; and as for the date, in 200CE the Coptic Christians of Egypt declared he was born on January 6 – they still do – but in 300CE the Roman Christians substituted this for that of the winter solstice, celebrated for centuries by the Roman pagans and later by the followers of Mithras: December 25. In short, in religious terms, Christmas is the celebration in the wrong year on the wrong day of the birth of a person who might or might not have existed. But faith, after all, is all about believing things that cannot be proven.
Myself, I don’t buy into (any) religion, but I do enjoy buying, when I can afford it, and now that the kids are old enough to no longer believe in magic and my surviving English family is unreachable, buying is all that’s left: presents, food, wine and – yet again – torrons. Indeed, I love the commercial side of Christmas, maybe because each time round it’s like a last-gasp shopping spree, a kind of money-driven carpe diem. So: Prettige Kerst! Happy Christmas ! Bon Nadal!