Sunday, 8 February 2009

To cut a long camino short – story 2 - Happy Hogmanay

Happy Hogmanay

Well January is finished and memories of New Year are fading. This year I celebrated in Madrid and I visited the nun who used to sing at the daily Pilgrims’ Mass in Santiago. She used to regularly sing the Hymn to St James when the Botofumeiro, the great censer is flown Listen to her in action:

Back to New Year. When I was young I witnessed many family parties and since then I’ve always thought that there is something unedifying about Scottish people who seem to get more Scottish around New Year.

First of all we have our own name for it - Hogmanay - a time of unbridled drinking, emotional regrets and tearful hopes. Although I accepted that people in other countries MUST celebrate New Year I always thought it must have been either invented by the Scots or at least we must have a very long term lease of it.

Surprise, surprise. I discovered a few years into my love affair with Spain that Noche Vieja - the Old Night - was a perfect equivalent... only better compared to what Scotland has to offer. In Madrid this year that meant a traditional dinner with loved ones and friends at around 10 pm followed by eating 12 grapes, one on each of the peals of midnight to bring mucha suerte in the year ahead followed by the entire city being shrouded in fireworks which thundered for at least 45 mins.

Whilst I am not one for New Year inspired highland dancing, shortbread, bagpipe music or speaking with an even more unintelligible accent rolling every "r" possible - I do believe in some traditions.

One such is the gift to friends and neighbours of a lump of coal, some shortbread and a bottle of whisky: so that they may always have heat, drink, food and good luck in the year which begins.

A couple of new years ago I was in Seville and I mistimed a meeting with friends on the last day of the year and I found myself in a typical Spanish corner bar - 12 people and it was full. As festivities progressed I established that my friends would turn up later. Not wanting to carry my little bundle around for hours I explained to the lady behind the bar in faltering Spanish that it is a custom in Scotland to "first foot" - to be the first person across the threshold to give traditional gifts and wish good luck for the year to come. I handed over the gifts to an obviously astonished landlady. Drink was taken and the evening passed memorably as most New Years do.

On returning some months later I happened upon the same little bar. On entering I sensed a frisson...waiters bowing..."Hola Caballero"...hand shakes...a table cloth! The Dueña appeared with a bottle of chilled wine...kisses..Gosh. "Muchisimas gracias para los regalos de suerte al año nuevo" she said..."we won the lottery in January". The sight of the diminutive owners of the little bar negotiating the narrow streets of Sevilla in a 4X4 SUV will remain forever.

This year the same gifts have been given only this time the wish in return is Buen Camino - perhaps better than winning the lottery.

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