Accustomed as I am to the bawdy drunken excesses of the typically British New Year revelry, I ventured into the Spanish celebrations with wide-eyed innocence, not having a single clue what to expect. I had heard of the tradition of eating grapes of course, one for each toll of the midnight bell, so a few days before the ‘big one’ I rushed down to the hypermarket to purchase a bunch or two.
Imagine my horror when I surveyed shelf after shelf of every variety of fruit except grapes! I panicked. Was I to be the only one in the village plaza who was not cramming their mouth full of grapes, cheeks bulging, juice and pips streaming from lips, crowds on onlookers baying for just one more to be stuffed inside? I couldn’t be the only one not to participate! The shame, the embarrassment…the alienation!
My poor suffering heart had already taken a beating as the stress levels continued to rise over the festive season. As I’ve previously reported, Christmas itself was good, if not a trifle (no pun intended…well, all right, just a bit!) bizarre with all that sunshine. And it had been tinged with some sadness as my daughter flew off to the dubious delights of Blighty in wintertime. But no, there was something else, something my youngest had cottoned onto quite early on – Spain has two celebrations! And two celebrations meant two loads of presents! Ah, the sweet innocence of the young!
The Big-Brother mind-control of television advertising meant that my little girl had been well armed with wish lists and letters to Santa. Now all of this was to be followed by further pleas to the Three Kings for all the things she desired. Mesmerized by images of Bratz, Polly Pockets and My Little Ponies, her saturated mind was so far gone that she would declare, “I want that!” when adverts for ‘Cilit Bang’ punctuated the almost constant bombardment of commercials for toys. Confused dot COM I certainly was!
For the time being, however, with Christmas almost out of the way, the build up to New Years Eve began. By the time this article is published, the celebrations for the festive season will be almost upon us once again. I can’t believe I’m writing about events that took place a year ago! Where has the time gone? So much has happened in such a short time! But the memories are vivid. On the night of New Year’s Eve, we dutifully made our way to the plaza. The locals had gathered, but not in the numbers I had thought. There were some British people there, milling around, looking a little lost. I don’t know what I was expecting. Town band, lots of decorations, perhaps some dancers? Certainly lots of music. Nada, just a few little groups gathered outside the Town Hall, huddled together in coats and scarves and gloves. This always amused me, and still does. Living here, how people can complain of the cold is beyond me. One of my English work colleagues constantly moans about the cold and is wrapped in cardigans and hats as soon as the temperature dips below seventy-eight degrees! Baffling.
Well, the clock began to strike, and a little hush settled upon the few meagre revellers. I looked around, waiting for the grapes to be brandished. Only one person was participating in this time-honoured tradition, and she was hiding rather self-consciously in a shop doorway, whilst her few friends clapped and urged her on. But no one else. I felt somewhat deflated and not a little disappointed.
Afterwards made up for it though. We danced and drank until the early hours. Ah, the unbridled joy of partying in the old way! How I slept when it all finally came to an end.
A lull followed, but there was an air of excitement, because the 6th of January was fast approaching and with it, the arrival of The Three Kings!
Most villages locally – and, I’m sure, nationally – put on a range of events for the children at this time of year, and Riogordo certainly did. I know Malaga does some fantastic things, with parades and music, et cetera, but there is something about the closeness of a little village, that sense of community that makes everything so much more personal, intimate and, it has to be said, deeply moving. Everyone knows my little girl by name, so when the Three Kings were paraded around the narrow streets, arriving outside our house at 11.30 at night, they called out her name as they showered her with sweets. ! How magical is that for a five year old! Naturally, she couldn’t sleep after that – but who cares! It was Christmas…well, part two at least!
The following day, my little girl had her presents, then later the children of the village were all treated to something rather special. An extra present, freely provided by the local council, and distributed by the Three Kings themselves! The scene was set, with three golden thrones ready and waiting on the stage in the Casa de la Cultura. Everyone had gathered, happy and expectant, all filled with good cheer, exchanging pleasantries in the charged, electrifying atmosphere. The thrones, although ready, were as yet empty and all eyes were fixed upon the stage as children and adults alike waited for the arrival of those most important and regal dignitaries! And then, suddenly, the town band struck up with a great blast of assembled trumpets and bugles – the kings entered, majestic and aloof, beaming down at the assembled throng. And it was a throng, for by now the press of people within the confines of the hall was making independent movement almost impossible. One was no longer in command of ones own limbs, the crowd had become a single, seething animal and with the entrance of the Kings, its mood changed dramatically, from polite and gracious to downright desperate and vicious.
The scene was transformed into something from Dante’s Inferno. A sea of swarming screaming children – the like of which is only usually seen within the confines of my own classroom – fought desperately with one another to get to the head of the queue. Normally quiet and retiring mothers became wild beasts as they clawed and kicked their way through the mess, determined to help get their children’s tiny hands on the proffered gifts. I watched helplessly as my own little girl was carried away by the wave of humanity that surged forward, her little cherubic face turned to me, teeth clenched in a maniacal grin, not sure whether to laugh or cry. I managed to extricate a hand and waved to her reassuringly, although inside I could feel the panic rising as all around me chaos ensued.
Those normally placid mothers were by now fully engaged with each other as tempers rose and the noise level reached such heights that I was sure my eardrums would burst. And there, on their golden throne, sat the Three Kings, calmly and graciously doling out beautifully wrapped presents, like kings of old would distribute alms to the poor, stoic, aloof, mercurial. Indeed, watching them one felt strangely becalmed, that with them in charge everything was actually going to be all right.
By now, the press of people at the back of the hall had dissipated somewhat as the action was now focused at the front. I managed to take my chance, a pushed my way down the far right aisle, trying desperately to catch my daughter’s eye. Calling out her name was useless; I would need a microphone amplified to rock concert levels if I was to make myself heard over the racket. Then I saw her, a tiny dot of a thing, courageously elbowing aside one particularly obnoxious little tyke, to reach forward to take her present. I could see her lips forming the word ‘gracias’ and for a moment the King looked stunned, totally taken aback that any child would exhibit politeness at such a time. My heart leaped. Some things we Brits do well, good manners is one of them!
Now I was faced with another problem – how to extricate her unharmed from this madness. Despite my previous remark, all sense of due respect were put to one side as the safety of my own child became paramount. Strange how these people feel it is perfectly acceptable to kick and punch you out of the way, but when you do it they turn on you with affronted eyes and outraged comments. But I was past caring and I used my considerable weight to good effect, managing after some effort, to take her hand and pull her free.
Fortunately, she was happy, and the fifty-piece jigsaw she received was quite nice. I glanced around me and saw that most children had the same, with the boys receiving something more in keeping with their gender – a model tractor, or similar. I wondered if it was really worth all of this effort. Not that I was ungrateful, it was a fantastic gesture, but did such presents warrant the metamorphosis of Riogordo from a peaceful, quiet village into a maelstrom of selfish violence? Never mind, there was always one of the local bars, and went to partake of some well-earned refreshment and contemplate, in the quiet confines of our chosen watering-hole, the sheer magic of the Christmas season. Perhaps the dream was still alive! God bless us, everyone!