A Glimmer of Christmas in Europe

Three weeks from today I shall be strolling about downtown Barcelona, at the beginning of my holidays there. Because I have been to the ancient capital of Catalonia many times, I will need to see little as a tourist, but at Christmastime there are certain special sights and experiences one must certainly take in. Among these is the city’s official Nativity scene, and this year’s installation has me wondering whether we are seeing a glimmer of hope from an otherwise rapidly secularizing Europe.

Each year the official Barcelona city Nativity scene is set up in the Plaça Sant Jaume (St. James’ Square), where city hall and the provincial government face each other. This site was once the old Roman forum, back when Barcelona was a Roman provincial town, and nearby one can see vestiges of this, such as Roman watchtowers and walls, part of a temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus, and whole sections of Roman streets and building foundations preserved below the present-day street level. Over the years I have seen some good, and some awful, examples of Nativity scenes set up in the square, but this year’s display is going to be something quite different.

According to news reports and video, this year’s Nativity scene looks back at Romanesque art, which is among Catalonia’s most significant contributions to world culture. The Romanesque period in art and architecture occurred from about 950-1100 A.D., after which it was supplanted by the Gothic style. While reducing matters to a rather basic level, Romanesque art can be distinguished by some of its details such as the use of rounded arches, bright colors, and fairly simple shapes. Catalonia is one of the few places in the world that has managed to preserve a great wealth of not only Romanesque architecture, but painted sculpture and wall murals as well.

City officials, taking advantage of this legacy, asked designer Rosa Ros Pijoan from the Barcelona Cultural Institute to incorporate various elements of Romanesque art into this year’s city Nativity scene. She did so by including reproductions of architectural elements, such as the interior and exterior of a Romanesque-style church, with a brightly colored wall painting depicting the Birth of Jesus; a section of a typical Romanesque cloister planted with a garden; and three-dimensional figures in Romanesque style from the Biblical telling of Christ’s birth as well as from popular Catalan Christmas carols, including the angels appearing to the shepherds, the Magi, men and women in traditional Catalan dress, etc. All of this is surrounded by a garden of living plants native to Catalonia, including local types of olive and pine trees, herbs, and wild flowers. Those strolling through this temporary garden will hear piped-in audio of some of the sounds of the Catalan countryside as well, from the Tramuntanya (the wind that rushes down from France and into Catalonia through the Pyrenees), local birds, church bells, and the waves of the Mediterranean.

And this is not all. For the first time, the city government has decided to extend the Christmas display into its own territory. In the 15th century Gothic interior courtyard of city hall, display cases have been set up containing typical, smaller-scale but highly elaborate Nativity scenes from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, taken from the holdings of the Barcelona Ethnographic Museum. The assembling of such scenes is a particular favorite of the Catalan people, and it is wonderful to see that this tradition will be celebrated in an official way by the local government.

I suspect that this shift is at least in part due to the fact that the new city official in charge of Barcelona’s cultural affairs, Counselor Jaume Ciurana, is from the more centrist regional political party, rather than from the leftist socialist party that had kept a stranglehold over the city government for the past couple of decades. During that period of time many things improved in the city with respect to transportation, re-development of brownfield sites, and so on, but at the same time many things went downhill, particularly with respect to the safety and preservation of historic, older parts of town such as the Gothic Quarter. Tradition was often sacrificed in the name of trying to appear hip and cosmopolitan, and in the process, one got the impression that Catalonia was forgetting what it made it unique and special.

In an interview he gave this summer to La Vanguardia, the largest-selling Barcelona daily, Ciruana noted that things had to change in his office based on a realistic appreciation of what Barcelona is, and what it is not; his assessment ought to be read by local leaders all over Europe:

I have to say that in the debate over multiculturalism and interculturalism, I am more for the latter. Among other things, because the former has failed in Europe. Barcelona is not a federation of ethnic groups. The concept of Catalan culture is changing. Barcelona has had a major demographic change, but the thread that binds together this group of citizens is Catalan culture.

For a European from a center-left party in charge of cultural affairs in a major city with a long history of leftist politics, these are fairly bold statements. Yet Ciruana goes even further in chastising his city for playing the copycat game under the socialists:

Sometimes there is a risk of confusing cosmopolitanism and provincialism. Thinking that anything foreign is better is provincialism. And cosmopolitan culture is often a franchise, it is exactly the same in Berlin, New York, Madrid and Buenos Aires. I want what’s happening here to be as interesting as what happens in these cities, but not the same.

This observation strikes a particular chord with me, because over the past twenty years I have seen many things which made Barcelona unique and special vanish, to be replaced by a kind of cookie-cutter, plastic culture that could be found in any of the aforementioned cities, or many others.

The Catholic in me, of course, also wonders whether the Papal Visit to Barcelona a year ago, to dedicate the new Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, may not have had a residual impact on the people of the city as well. All of the naysayers in the press said that no one but the elderly and a few right-wingers would be interested in seeing the Pope, and that his visit would be overshadowed by massive protests against him. As it turned out, all of the news outlets were completely dumbfounded by the enormous outpouring of affection for the Holy Father from all age groups, but particularly among the youth of the city.  And the protests that did take place were so tiny that they could have been completely ignored, were not the members of the press more interested in pressing a leftist agenda than in reporting the truth.

In any case, making sure that Christ stays in Christmas, particularly in a place so often hostile to Him as Barcelona is, is something worth celebrating.  Whether the change of heart has to do with a change of political party, the Pope, or simply happenstance, I am pleased to see that the city I love most in the world seems to be taking its Christian past more seriously than it has for many years.  And I look forward to seeing this Nativity scene in person very soon.

Dr. Xavier Trias, the present Mayor of Barcelona,
tours the City’s Romanesque-style Nativity scene last evening

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