Spanish children do not rush off to bed of an evening. Thus it was that on Christmas Eve, we were treated to a nativity play when we attended La Misa del Gallo (The Cockerel’s Mass), which begins at midnight, and is so called because tradition has it that when Jesus was born the cock crowed three times. Children were milling about, dressed variously as Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the kings and assorted stars and sheep. The mass began and after the gospel reading, the lights were dimmed and the enactment of the Nativity took place.It was perhaps as well that we had just had the story read out to us, since even with microphones to hand, the actors tended to mumble their lines nervously. Mary and Joseph duly arrived at the inn and were duly redirected to the stable. The sacristy served as the stable and so Mary and Joseph went in through the door. After a moment or two, a parent switched on the tape, and over the speakers came first the deafeningg sound of a cockerel giving full throat to his announcement, and then immediately afterwards, the strident bawling of a new-born babe. Seconds later, a triumphant Mary marched back into the sanctuary, the baby Jesus held aloft, and everybody clapped enthusiastically. Shepherds and kings duly came forward and paid homage. The congregation clapped a second time, in appreciation of the children’s efforts, and then the mass continued. It happens every year, but it still sends a tingle up my spine.
Yesterday the Spanish National Lottery marked what for Spaniards is really the first day of Christmas, by holding El Gordo (The Fat One). This mega-lottery has been held now for 250 years on December 22nd, without interruption. Longevity is not its only claim to fame, however. It also has the distinction of being the world’s largest single draw. Sales are down quite a lot since the start of the downturn at the end of 2007, but even so the prize pot yesterday amounted to 2.2 billion euros. A ticket costs 200€, which might sound off-putting, but very few people would buy a whole ticket. They will buy a decimo ( a tenth part of a ticket at 20€) or possibly several. Those who struggle to afford a decimo will club together with friends to buy a decimo between them. One way or another, just about the entire adult population of Spain buys at least one piece of the action.Then at 9.00 am on the 22nd, everyone sits down in front of the TV to watch the draw live on RTVE1. A huge golden mesh globe has been loaded with balls representing all 100,000 possible numbers. To the left stands a smaller globe containing all of the prize balls - 2000 of them. Each globe feeds balls one at a time into a chute which deposits the ball into a bowl, and by each bowl stands a pupil of the Madrid orphanage whose historic role it is to call out, first the number, then the prize. This they do in a singy-chanty voice: “Cincuenta y dos mil, tres ciento veinte seis”:(51226), which is followed usually by the elongated call from the other child, “Miiil eeeuuuros” (1,000€). On and on it goes hypnotically, until the routine is broken as the child with the prize ball announces one of the big prizes, maybe the top prize, “Cuaatroo millones de eeeuuroos” (4,000,000€). The big prizes prompt a great flurry of theatre as the children carry the two balls across to the adjudicators and show them to each one in turn and the combination is duly verified. You may be tempted to wonder how a lottery with only 2000 winning numbers and a top prize of 4 milliin euros can be such a national obsession. You may also be tempted to wonder how that can add up to a prize fund of 2.2 billion euros. The secret is in the fact that the one hundred thousand number combinations are printed in an enormous number of series. Thus each number is sold over and over again, and the prizes are paid out to everyone holding a winning number, the prize value applying per series. Everyone, in other words, who holds a decimo of the top ticket will receive one tenth of the ticket prize, this year 4 million euros. Villages and neighbourhoods will have their favourite number which they will buy year after year in sufficient quantities to satisfy local demand. The result can be mind-blowing. Yesterday a village in the Basque Country found itself 180.000.000€ better off at the close of the draw. There’ll be some thick heads today!
We’re having some wild weather right now. Yesterday, for the first time in several weeks we had some proper rain. It started in the late afternoon and continued for three or four hours. Then the wind came. We sit on top of a ridge, 330 metres above sea level, so we tend to notice the wind. Last night there was no ignoring it. Plant pots blew about the roof, chairs moved up and down the balcony and the wind hammered at the windows; Fortunately, since we had new double-glazed units fitted a couple of years ago, this is no longer any great problem. However, there was enough roaring and whistling going on to make sleep difficult. And today it’s just coming up to half past eleven and the electricity has gone off five times. All of this is quite a contrast from from Chatterton where we spent the twenty eight years prior to moving here, living down in the valley bottom. Then we could here the wind blowing high above us, but were never really affected. Of course, while all this turmoil is going on the sky is blue and the sun is shining brightly. Not a day for venturing out, however, unless you really have to.
Finally Christmas and the end of the year are just around the corner. It has been a non-year in many ways. Round about this time last year I was faced with a range of medical examinations, whilst simultaneously preparing to head off to New Zealand on a major holiday. One way or another the rest of the year was occupied by health matters to the exclusion of pretty much everything else, even extending to this week; having dealt with my prostate, I turned my attention to my cataracts and attended the opthalmology department of our local hospital on Thursday for a check-up. Sadly - or should that be ‘fortunately’? - it will be at least another twelve months before they even consider surgery. So right now I am looking forward to an uneventful 2014, apart from my routine check-ups and six-monthly injections, that is. Two flippant principles that I dreamed up some years ago, but to which I still subscribe, are “Every solution contains the seeds of the next problem” and “when you solve the last problem, they screw the lid down.” I’m not ready to have the lid screwed down just yet, so I suppose I must brace myself for more problems. At this season of goodwill, I wish you all a wonderful Christmas, Hannukah, or whatever your winter festival may be, a healthy and fruitful 2014, and may all your problems lend themselves to easy solutions.
During the course of my life three world-changing events stand out in my mind; I was born and lived through the Second World War, but was too young for it to register. So the first event that made a lasting impression on me was the building of a high wall right across Berlin, separation the eastern zone from the rest, and creating the state of East Germany.The second was directly related to the first. Sitting in front of my television one evening I witnessed the incredible sight in live coverage of people actually climbing onto the top of that wall and attacking it with pickaxes, and not a shot was fired. The flood of East German people pouring through the breached wall was also moving, but less so than that first stark evidence that things were changing irreversibly. Why am I writing about this this morning? Because I am reminded again of the third event. The sight, again on my television screen, of a newly released nelson Mandela walking through the crowds from his prison cell to freedom. The impact of that event was only increased by the attitude which Mandela brought with him - forgiveness, reconciliation and a burning desire for a new nation where everyone would be treated equitably and with justice. That project is still short of coming to fruition, but now his successors must achieve it without his guiding presence in the background. R.I.P Nelson Mandela.