I turned the street corner and arrived in Plaza Mayor to face Santiago’s giant cathedral, glowing green and gold against the night sky.
Oh My God.
From Granada to Seville, and even Dublin and Salamanca, I have seen many cathedrals over the past four months. But none compares with the moss-covered, regal ghost that is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The raindrops only grew fatter and the people fled, leaving me alone under the illuminated giant.
Without an umbrella, but ready with heavy boots and a waterproof coat, I decided to continue my soaked run through the town. The place was empty. The city was mine. The sky didn’t mind that I was wet and died down only after I ducked into a small tavern on another sleepy street. Acoustic music lured me towards the back, where bright green plants grew out of the underground walls. The music was live, not very good, and the drink I ordered expensive. But at this point, ten travel days deep, I was happy to be indoors, happy to be in Santiago de Compostela, and happy to be traveling on my own.
Los Reyes Magos
Spain doesn’t have a Santa Claus. In fact, the American and English influence of “Papa Noel” has started showing up, on advertisements, outdoor decorations, and Christmas packaging, mostly within the last ten years. I am with most Spanish people in my dislike for the cultural imposition of Santa Claus. Spaniards have their proper holiday tradition—Dia de Los Reyes Magos—a celebration of the Epiphany, or the manifestation of Christ. Much like in the United States, children write a letter to the Three Wisemen, are tucked into bed early, and wake up the following morning to a mountain of gifts. January 6th is the day for presents in Spain, only a small gift for children would be given on Christmas. The Reyes Magos, Melchor, Gaspar, and Beltasar, are distinct ethnicities and are depicted in all the Belens (Nativity scenes) of the towns and in people’s homes. Each town has a parade, where the Three Kings throw candy from decorated floats and the town’s marching band livens the night.
Families appeared from their window balconies, looking down on children in peacoats and galoshes, who made up bouncy ball games and sprayed silly string on the sidewalk. Men on horses preceded the parade, announcing the arrival of Melchor, Gaspar, and Beltasar. Each king came by on a brightly lit float, each with his distinct color scheme and with costumed servants and animals by his side. The children waved and screamed with delight and scrambled from under the arched sidewalks to catch the kings’ candy.
The procession led into Plaza Mayor, the same place I’d stood the previous night, alone and surrounded by nothing by quiet rain. I stood surrounded now by umbrellas and strollers, laughing children and eager parents. The Three Wisemen appeared on the terrace of the great Palacio de Raxoi and called out to the kids in Gallego—a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish.
Gallego sounds like Italian in its inflexion and song-like speech and its smooth “ch”s and “sh”s seem Portuguese. Gallego is spoken in Galicia, the region in the Northwest of Spain, and is one of the country’s four official languages. It’s magical and romantic and smooth, and a sharp contrast to the thick and cut off accented Andalusian dialect of the South. Due to the close relationship to Spanish and the obvious context of what was being said, it wasn’t too difficult to understand the animated speakers.
“You’ve all been good this year, right nenos?”
“Well make sure you go home and get to bed early, for tomorrow there will be presents waiting for you!”
I was struck by the intense joy of being on my own. All the colors, the music, and the sounds of children were mine in that moment. My heart sang as I watched families, the joy of the parents, and the joy of each child. Even though at such a different phase of my life, a free 23 year old, gasping and taking it all in under her umbrella under the cathedral, I felt the parental love. Sharing something so beautiful with children, the giggles and wide eyed wonder, providing as parents they the infrastructure for the memories, and knowing the children give their parents so much joy in return.
It took me three days alone, three days of bus rides, long city walks, and hours of café writing, to get back to a place where I was okay being alone. The transition from good company and social interaction was difficult. I was in Salamanca, desperately lonely and confused. But it passed. I stayed with it, felt what I needed to, and worked it out of my system. The reward was unimaginable. I remembered how much I love my own company, and under the fireworks and magic of the raining Santiago sky I felt the same magic of the playa as I watched The Man burn under an August moon alone. Lights, sounds, energy and love. I thanked God in that moment, for giving me the time to have now, for myself, for travel, for learning and for love. And for the moments when I will be the parent, ready to share so much love and joy with a child.