“Edgy” and “outrageous” aren’t words I usually use to describe religious-themed holiday figurines, but a few days ago, strolling around a street market in Seville, I was gobsmacked by some of the latest offerings.
If you don’t happen to live in a Mediterranean country, you may not know that here, an event as important as the Nativity requires the largest possible entourage, including, in addition to the usual figures, the entire city of Bethlehem, a caravan for the Wise Men, a legion of plumed Roman soldiers, and a desert with pyramids and a pharaoh’s palace as a backdrop for the Flight into Egypt. There are cunningly crafted, battery-powered moving figures, such as a butcher cutting up a pig. That’s right, a pig; apparently I’m the only one around here to find pork at all incongruous in what’s supposed to be a traditional Jewish community.
If you look closely behind the stable or a bush, you may find a caganer, a figure clearly and explicitly defecating. The Italians and Spanish love this character, insisting that he (or she, in today’s more egalitarian times) adds a much-needed touch of earthy realism. Often the caganer bears the face of a celebrity such as Bruce Springsteen, Kate Middleton, Darth Vader, or Santa. As far as I know, none of those individuals actually happened to be present at the birth of the Lord, but again, I’m the only one who seems the slightest bit concerned about such technicalities.
Every year artisans outdo themselves, for instance creating a stable with a fluffy cloud that “rains” actual water down on the scene, or a stream with live goldfish. I thought I was prepared for anything, but this year, two new figurines made my jaw drop and my hand grope for the camera. The first was a figure of Mary shown baring one breast to feed the Child. They certainly never showed us that at the Convent of the Sacred Heart where I went to school! A few booths further on, I discovered a donkey portrayed in the act of giving birth. Obviously I get how it ties in with the theme, but – seriously? No one feels this might be taking earthy realism a bit too far?
Holidays are the expression of the collective consciousness of a society. If you are lucky enough to be abroad for a major celebration, you may have the opportunity to view one of your own traditions in a whole new way through others' eyes.
Take Thanksgiving, for instance. Sevillano friends are convinced it’s the most important day of the year in the US, as it holds center stage in so many movies about American life. Several years ago, Rich and I prepared a Thanksgiving feast for Spanish amigos who were thrilled by the exotic ambiance, but – although too polite to say so – didn’t care for the actual food. The only dish they did like? The canned cranberry sauce, which I consider an also-ran, and included only as a nod to tradition. Go figure.
Seville’s biggest celebration is Holy Week, when a million visitors watch men carry ancient statues of the suffering Jesus and weeping Virgin through the streets. The processions run day and night all week, snaking through the city streets for miles, accompanied by bands playing funeral dirges. Masses of locals line the roads, watching and weeping. Not surprisingly, nobody seems too interested in switching over to the American-style Easter Egg hunt as a more fitting way to mark the occasion.
No one writes sentimental carols about being abroad for the holidays, but to me, it has a special charm all its own. You never know what you’re going to encounter, but you can be sure it will be something astonishing. And even if you don’t want to add a donkey giving birth to your own decorations, it’ll give you something to talk about around the next holiday dinner table.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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