Christmas In March

For a few days in the month of March, thousands of people from across the world joined the people of Castellon, Spain, to celebrate the Magdalena traditional festival. The carnival, the rainbow colors and the thundering sounds of fireworks were reminiscent of the Christmas period in Nigeria.

For visitors and non-residents who were visiting Spain for the first time, the spectacle of the Magdalena was simply exotic. The boisterous activities that included drinking of wine, beer and stronger alcoholic beverages that marked the weeklong festival was a sort of cultural shock.

The People of Spain know how to have fun. One might even be tempted to say that they give more priority to enjoying the “good time” than they do work. To be sure, in Spain, three hours siesta is still part of national life. All offices shut their doors for workers to go home and rest between 2pm – 5pm.

At 5pm, the offices are again re-opened and the streets which in the three hours of siesta had assumed the ambience of a necropolis, once again become busy with now well rested citizens that will work till 8pm when they again close to have dinner with lots of wine and beer. Do not ask me what happens to those that do not live near their offices and shops, for I do not know how much of the three hours they actually spend resting if they have to go far to catch a nap.

In the first week of March, a kind of holiday because of the Magdalena festival, the people of Spain devote time to their favorite leisure activities: eating, drinking, dancing, resting and giving two kisses on both sides of the cheek, not necessarily in that order.

On Saturday March 2, 2002, the sun rose in a blaze of gold over the Mediterranean Sea to usher in the start of this year’s Magdalena festival. Expectedly, all roads led to the town of Castellon de la Plana. By 8am, the movement of people to the town center that started as a trickle of feet had become a flood, as cars, trains and buses conveying curious visitors and excited residents besieged the town.

By 9am, the entire town was clothed in the gay robe of fiesta. Colorful neon lights could be seen hanging everywhere. The early risers had already taken their seat on the thousands of plastic chairs from the local government headquarters, strategically placed on the street walkway.

Everyone was caught up in the anticipation of festivity that hovered in the air. Everyone was waiting for the arrival of several hundreds that had gone up to the monastery to perform the annual ritual, to usher in the festival inside the monastery, up in the mountains of Benicassim.

Soon, they began to arrive, these young, old and not so old citizens of Spain who were some years ago kept under the dictatorial rule of Franco. As they arrived the town center dressed in a variety of traditional attires, a stir went around the waiting crowd. People re-adjusted their viewing positions and cameras began to flash like they do in Hollywood.

The arrival of those that had gone up to the monastery in the mountains, joined by others carefully seated on beautifully decorated trucks and trailers, started the Magdalena procession. As the procession moved along the narrowing spaces on the streets, more people arrived and joined.

Several musical bands in specially made shirts also joined and began to perform to the delight of those on the sidewalk who had by now abandoned the plastic chairs to catch a better glimpse or join the growing fiesta. As the people moved from one street to the next, they intermittently stopped to drink some wine, gulp down some beer and grab some snacks from the several tapas stands in strategic corners of the streets.

The spectacle at the different tapas stands deserves a mention. These stands including “El Meson de la y la cervesa” on the corner of Jofre Square and “El Meson del Vino” on the corner of Herrero Tejedo Square were makeshift bars displaying and offering for sale, at relatively cheap prices, a variety of beers, wines and other alcohol, including the traditional Sangria drink and local snacks. With Latin American salsa music blaring from huge speakers at the corners of the stands, tired people simply pitched their tents at the stands and started another kind of fiesta.

By 4pm, another group of people, consisting mainly of the older generation of Spaniards joined the procession. They were dressed in attires that showcased the people’s history and customs. They were singing folk songs and swaying their old not so nimble waists in a dance that took them from San Felix through Augustine Square via Plaza de Mayor to Ruiz Zorrilla and Rey D Jaume I Avenue and other parts of the town.

One highpoint of the opening day of the Magdalena was the fireworks display that started at 11.30pm in the fairground “Pau Gumbau”. Now this fireworks display is one like no other. It beats the fireworks display on July 4th in America.

For Nigerians who witnessed it, the thundering sounds brought back memories of “Banger knockout” during Christmas and on New Year’s Eve. A girl who grew up in Jamaica in the 70s and another Palestinian man who watched with awe both confessed that the bangs brought back the images of bomb raids in Kingston and Gaza respectively.

The Magdalena fireworks were not about firecrackers that evoke unpleasant images. It was the un-common spectacle of a sea of heads, watching harmless canisters sail up into the skies, to embrace a startled moon and the open up in colorful shades of lights. It was about attitude too – the attitude of largely drunk youths, sobered up by the beautiful exchange of lights, between man-made canisters and the God-given moon. The Magdalena fireworks display was like a repeat of the millennium celebration fireworks in Times Square, New York.

After this event that lasted for half an hour, an all night party featuring the famous Spanish group “M-Clan” started .The subsequent days of the weeklong traditional festival took the form of the first day. More eating, drinking, dancing and colorful processions along the streets. The processions on the days that followed were, however, no longer exclusive to Spaniards. Invited bands from Puerto Rico, the United States, Malaysia, United Kingdom, Sweden as well as traditional dance groups from Brazil, Ireland and other parts of Europe also featured. The half-naked girls from Brazil caused a stir as they shook their well-shaped bosoms in the Rio de Janeiro way, amidst hoots and shouts from the excited crowd.

There were also other events: an international festival of music, Folk dance carnival, The Toro embolado bull fights, A display of bulls with their horns on fire, an international Animation Cavalcade featuring Theatre presentations and circus shows and several others.

On March 10, the last day of the festival, there was a display of ancient cars on the streets, followed by more festive events and the final string of firecrackers that went ra ta ta ta ta like gun-shots along every street in the town for over thirty minutes in a bizarre fashion to bid farewell to the unique festival.

As the week came to an end and tourists and visitors left the town, reflections on the effect of the spectacle and events were varied. Although the festival was originally meant to celebrate and give thanks to God for the chasing-off of the moors from what is today known as Spain, over the years it has taken on new meanings. Despite the boisterous reveling, Magdalena has become a forum to display aspects of the folk culture of people from every part of the world.

The international participation which Magdalena now attracts has been linked to the fact that Castellon, the host town, is also the site of the UNESCO backed International Center for Peace and Development Studies – with students from every part of the world.

While the truth of this could not be ascertained during my visit to Spain, the fact remains that the non-inclusion of any African cultural troupe in a fiesta that lays claim to the toga of “international” leaves more to be desired.

As I watched the spectacle of the Magdalena, I remembered Christmas in Nigeria. I was looking forward to seeing our Fulani milk maiden dancers, the Bata dancers or the Atilogu dancers in the procession. I am sure any of these groups would have added the unique African spice and flavor to the Spanish festival, which has the great potential of promoting international cooperation through culture, in a world filled with conflicts, war and more threats of war.

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