Monday, 9 January 2012

The organist wore red underwear...

Puerta del Sol - Madrid
Here I am. Hello everyone. Happy Christmas, Happy New year, Happy Feast of the Kings. Santiago has been  non stop fiestas since I last wrote to you. Seriously. I never cease to be amazed at the capacity of Spaniards to find every excuse for a celebration.  I'm exhausted with it all.

Christmas here was wonderful but in many ways quite different the UK. For example I had a full schedule of playing - 2 services on Christmas Eve including Midnight Mass or the Mass of the Cockrel as they call it then three on Christmas morning. Usually midnight mass is the highlight. I'm used to a candlelit carol service and a packed church. Here it was cold and wintry and there was a half full church. How so? Well I discovered that here in Spain on the Christmas Eve, the Noche Buena, the tradition is that families sit down together to eat a meal of many courses. As the services gradually filled up on Christmas Day until there was standing room only at the final Mass at 1pm I heard story after story of the night before. "We had 28 of the family to dinner last night", "Oh really? We had 33 plus 7 children." No wonder the streets and the pews were empty.
There was little respite for me in the few days until New Year and the funerals came piling in. I've played at 35 in about 25 weeks. However New Year was splendid. The Plaza Obradoiro rocked and fireworks filled the sky over the cathedral as I raised a glass to welcome the New Year before getting up early the next morning for the three services of the Feast of Our Lady the Patroness of Spain.
One more thing about how the Spanish celebrate the New Year. In Scotland we tend to have family dinners on New years Eve just as the Spaniards do on Christmas Eve, then as the bells toll a glass of something, often whisky is raised in a toast. Here as the bells of the clock tower in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid the dead centre of Spain chimed midnight Spanish friends munched a grape, 12 in all to welcome the new year. Many of them also wore red underwear. Now, underwear is not something we usually speak about nor write about in pilgrim blogs. But the truth is over the few weeks leading up to new year I couldn't help but notice that shop windows were full of displays of red underwear. It seemed to be everywhere. I thought about taking some pictures to show you the extent of it but I couldn't bring myself to been seen camera in hand taking pictures of underwear. However over a few drinks I did pluck up courage to ask some friends about this tradición intimá as some of the posters in shop windows put it. To much laughter they confirmed this was the case. Many Spaniards wear red underwear to bring in the new year to give them good luck for the year to come. It has to be new red underwear, by the way to give you the best chance of good fortune. A short google search revealed that this is a tradition shared in Italy, in China!  
Now you know.

It is a New Year and New Project as colleagues in the Confraternity of St James and the Irish Society of the Friends of St. James launched the new Service of 100,000 welcomes. We are going to open an apartment here in Santiago in which volunteers will live for minimum periods of two weeks whilst they work in the Pilgrims' Office providing  a personal welcome to every pilgrim who arrives. It is also an English language based programme and the volunteers, called Amigos, will provide information in English to those who needs it. We are going to run this project this year from May - October, the walking season, and then evaluate its success before deciding on future years. In this pilot period volunteers will be drawn from the membership of the CSJ and the Irish Friends and those known to them. It is very exciting and already members have started to write expressing an interest. Information is available from both organisations and I'll post further information here when I get my breath back.
Then the other day I went down to the train station where I usually get the train to Pontevedra to find a throng of thousands waiting for the arrival of the three kings. This was the Feast of the Epiphany. Arrive they did and a splendid procession began through the town. This was not the spectacle of Sevilla or Madrid. It was a much more homely affair. But the streets were lined with people. Children were held high with plastic bags open to catch some of the tons of sweets which were thrown into the crowds. On the back of the floats carrying the Kings a seemingly endless supply of sweets sat like bags of swag as the marching band played at full tilt. Everyone was happy.
It is also a time for making resolutions. I've got a few. I'm astonished to look back and count up that I have played 150 times in the last 5 months. This is more than I played in the UK and is frankly too much. Forgive a short morbid rant about this but I had no idea that in Spain when you die you are buried within 24 hours. Whatever the benefits of this tradition for me it means a phone call sometimes late in the evening asking me to come the next morning or afternoon. I can see in the distance caminos becoming impossible, the diary being arranged around organ commitments, coordinating the new project and answering the phone about funerals! So there will be change. I'm going to walk more. I've devised a new route here in Santiago, it is the Route of  Routes a guide to which will be published later in the year. I'll tell you more about it soon. I want to do more of this and other walking projects. So many routes...

So dear reader, thank you once again for calling in. I'll finish this blog by wishing you all a Happy New Year. I hope that the year brings you good things and that at least some of your camino dreams and ambitions come true.

And did the organist wear red underwear for luck? Well that would be telling.


  1. Thank you John for another great insight into Spanish culture and traditions. Happy New Year to you.

    Rose Louise

  2. I have once experienced the 12 grapes of the Spanish New Year. Only I was in Portugal which at that time anyhow was an hour different, and we watched TV showing the events at Puerta del Sol to get Spanish time. It seemed like it would be impossible to swallow 12 grapes. But it was possible indeed!

  3. Masterfully staying just on the right side of "too much information".
    Happy new year John!