|Detail from Gozzoli's|
Procession of the Magi
Traditionally, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were for family gatherings, meals and mass, and little or nothing in the way of gift giving. Instead, children received gifts on the night of January 5th, the Epiphany, the day of the Magi, the Wise Kings of Orient, los Reyes Magos. So it is this night that was and still is the most magical for the young and young at heart in Spain. Christmas trees were never a tradition here (although they are becoming increasingly popular), but most homes had a manger nativity scene, known as a Belén or nacimiento (literally Bethlehem or nativity), with figures representing the birth of Christ and his revelation to the Magi. Some of the figures can be quite ornate and beautiful and are handed down in families for generations. On the eve of the Epiphany, after seeing the cabalgata de los Reyes Magos, a street procession with elaborate staged representations of the Christmas story, highlighted by the three wise kings from Orient, children rush home to put their shoes next to the manger and in the morning find the gifts that the Magi Melchor, Baltazar and Gaspar have left for them.
Of course, the child in me is partial to Santa, but I have to say that Saint Nick’s connection to Christ is tenuous at best, so I think there is a bit more liturgical ‘integrity’ in giving pride of place to the Magi over the chubby jolly fellow in the red suit. I must say, though, that last year we were in Brussels, Bruges and Ghent shortly before Christmas and I found some of the commemorations of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklass) on December 6th to be quite beautiful. Specifically, in Ghent, we saw how a few boats full of boisterous singing children made their way through a half frozen canal, with Saint Nick leading the way, while their classmates on the bridges and streets collected money for orphans from the happy onlookers, many of whom joined the kids in song. (I recently learned from Wikipedia that in Belgium Saint Nicholas is the “patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students” — comforting to learn that even thieves have patron saints, how democratic is that?!)
|Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Middle King, detail|
One of the favorite though waning activities during the Christmas holiday is spending the time between Christmas Day and the Epiphany visiting the nativity scenes in churches, store displays and other public places. Some are quite large, sophisticated and even mechanized, so we can see a shooting star cross the sky, the Magi arrive on their camels, Herod issuing his murderous decree to slay the innocents, and Mary, Joseph and the newborn Christ taking flight to Egypt. There is something so warmly satisfying about watching the faces of little children light up with big eyes as they pick out the main players in the birthing drama of dramas about the king of kings. ¡Mira, la virgen! ¡El ñiño Jesús! ¡¡Baltazar!! (being the lone black man of the three, Balthazar is the easiest to pick out). There is little or nothing in the way of snow, but much moss and sand. Here, where I live, in Don Quijote country, there are mini-windmills. I particularly like the Bethlehem representations that show us bakers taking bread out of their ovens, ironsmiths hammering blades on anvils, a shepherd readying a lamb for slaughter.
|Gozzoli — Cappella dei Magi|
Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, Florence
Well, returning from the socio-scatological to the ritual sacred, I am embedding a video below that is representative of how elaborate and beautiful these belenes can be. This particular nativity scene is set up every year during the 12 days of Christmas at a church in a lovely town called Chinchilla, around 10 miles from where I live. I recommend setting the resolution to 720p and viewing it full screen.
* * *
The term epiphany was originally coined by the ancient Greeks to refer to the appearance or manifestation of a god. Later on, it became identified with this particular Christian celebration and tradition. Over time it has also come to be used to refer to a luminous moment of intense insight into the essence of something, normally an otherwise mundane or commonplace object, that special flashpoint where the everyday and the transcendent suddenly meet. It was James Joyce who perhaps did the most to give the word epiphany this secular meaning, unrelated to the appearance or manifestation of a deity or of Christ. He wrote brief vignettes, prose poems, in which he illustrated epiphanies. For Joyce, an epiphany was a sudden “revelation of the whatness of a thing”, the moment when “the soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant”. Surely, epiphanies are the lifeblood of poetry, the shudder we feel when the things of this world seem to overflow into us.
In this vein, I was tickled to learn recently (a little bird on Facebook told me) that January 6th, the Epiphany, el día de los Reyes, is also the birthday of a very special blog friend. How delightfully appropriate, I thought, feeling that many things were thus explained, for this child of the Epiphany strikes me as a person who forever craves not so much chocolate —as she is fond of claiming— as she does epiphanies. A poetess who seems addicted to finding, creating and sharing epiphanies on her blog, The Chocolate Chip Waffle. So now I know your secret, Terresa: your sublime and scintillating poetry and prose is a birthmark and birthright, gifts from some wandering magi. And I know this day is especially important to you. That you approach the Epiphany from your deep Christian faith as the 12th and crowning day of Christmas, festival of the rebirth of hope for a more loving world and belief in the possibility of salvation and redemption. And that you also come to the epiphany from your poetic practice, in the JamesJoycean sense of finding and spreading radiance in our everyday lives.
So, if you like, treat yourself to a visit to Terresa's blog and wish her a happy; tell her Lorenzo said ¡Felix cumpleaños!
* * *
The images I have used on this post are from the wonderful cycle of 15th century frescoes, The Procession of the Magi, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence. By clicking on the captions you can see a large landscape image of the series. You can also see a very brief visual intro to the wonderful chapel below (again, try seeing it in 720p and full screen):