Tradition Transcends Time

March 2008

There are remote country villages in Galicia where time seems to have stopped still. At midnight on 1 January, boys don belts of bells and run through the streets wearing huge colorful masks - their designs are deeply rooted in pre-history. The young men are termed peliqueiros because they wear a pelica - the skin of a dog or sheep, which hangs on them as if they had a wig. 

In one Gallego town another figure, eight feet tall, draped with animal skins and crowned with a wild goat's head, silently walks through the revelers. He is a demonic figure with his curled horns and cloven hoofs, his glass eyes and cryptic smile. A group of boys run into the square, scattering handfuls of earth. A quartet of bagpipers and drummers come and go.

The sources of many celebrations of the Spanish people have remnants of a pagan past that is lost in antiquity. I remember visiting the rural city of Ciudad Rodrigo for a local version of "running with the bulls" and watching with amazement as young men displayed their bravery by vaulting over charging bulls. They were replicating what youths did in the Minoan culture at the dawn of time.

My wife Ruth and I try to visit as many folk observances as we can, for we feel it is there that one can experience the pulse of elemental Spain. Spain is a fascinating mix of cultures and traditions, one of the strongest of which was the medieval Church. Last year on Good Friday afternoon Ruth and I visited a tiny village nestled in the mountains outside of Zamora. There we witnessed a handful of old matrons singing folk hymns while their grandchildren, the youth of the town, reenacted the Descent from the Cross.

For over a thousand years, life was conceived as part of a cycle of seasons, rather than something that progressed to an end. First Advent, then Navidad, Tres Reyes, Carnaval, Lent, Semana Santa, Pascua, Pentecost, then Advent again. Tradition encouraged people to celebrate their birthdays on the day of the saint whose name they were given in baptism, rather than the day on which they were born. In addition everyone in the local community would stop work to celebrate the day of the patron saint of their town. You can see remnants of this tradition in the many national and local holidays that the modern Spanish calendar retains. 

Archaic as it may seem, I find something reassuring about marking the regular cycle of the seasons - something that transcends the artifice of time. The long nights of winter prepare us for the renewal of spring. The fullness of summer prepares us for the richness of the harvest. No matter how we manipulate our timekeeping, the natural cycle is always there.

There was a time when most of human activity was determined by the presence of the sun, or daylight. (It was before the advent of electricity, which now permits the youth of Spain to frolic routinely until 4 in the morning!) In Spain and other Mediterranean countries the culture always honored the rhythm of life, rather than the hands on the watch. Since normal people feel drowsy after a mid day meal, the community set aside time for a siesta.

Years ago, when I first looked up at the 12C cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, I noticed that the analog clock (remember those - the ones with hands?) on one of the towers had no minute hand at all! It reflected a time when measuring by hours of the day was sufficient.

Today we are surrounded by the artifice of time. Right now your computer is telling you the time and keeping record of your activity. You may have a timepiece strapped to your wrist. The cell phone in your pocket measures your every usage. Then there is your TV cable box, DVR, microwave, stove, automobile dashboard. Even the receipt at the grocery store and gas station is imprinted with the exact time you were there.

What a fascinating contrast between the two cultures. The 400 year history of my hometown of Jamestown in Virginia seems insignificant compared to the traditions of ancient Spain where the measurement of time had little relevance – almost like the way we thought as children when we heard our parents read to us "Once upon a time!"

When I hear passionate pleading for my vote in the election that will change history, I put it in perspective. What really makes my history is not Election Day. It is the timeless joy of being with my family and playing with my grandchildren. The calendar is irrelevant. I suspect that the people of Ciudad Rodrigo, Valencia, Sevilla and the villages of Galicia would say the same - this year or a thousand years ago. It is the cycle of life, the cycle of love which is of the essence.

May you have a blessed Easter, or Passover, or other observances of renewal and hope. Spring is coming and what a joy that is!