Christmas of the Gypsies
by Lawrence Boheme
Unlike most Spaniards, who focus their religious fervour on the Virgin Mary, the gypsies have always identified closely with Jesus, because, like them, he was a wanderer and had to rely on whatever pickings he could find, as he made his way through the world. As an old gypsy once told me, ¨Era como nosotros: nos lo ganamos aquí, y nos lo gastamos allá¨, which roughly translates as ¨He was like us: we earn our money in one place and spend it in the next¨. The fact that Jesus was shunned and persecuted must also strike a note of recognition in the gypsies´ hearts, since they are used to being the unwanted stragglers of the many countries through which, on their thousand-year odyssey, they have passed.
In my town, Montefrio, where about one-fifth of the 5,000 villagers are gypsies (compared to the minute 1% of Spain´s total population), the fun-loving inhabitants of the two barrios gitanos, El Coro and La Solana – the first facing the castle from across the plunging valley, and the other clinging to the jagged cliff at its feet - are constantly making merry at weddings, christenings, bachelor farewells, birthdays and, it often seems to me, almost every other family occurrence except funerals. But the formula for the juerga – the spree - is always the same: flamenco, of the front-porch variety. The gypsies of Andalucia must be the last people in Europe to make and dance to their own music, every time they have a get-together.
Like all Latin peoples, non-gypsy or payo Spaniards celebrate Christmas Eve, but the gitanos, in this at least, are like us anglos: they rejoice in the birth of the Señor on the day it happened, December 25th. As the rest of the village sleeps off the night-before´s orgy of mantecados (the trays of shortbreads which appear at this time of year) and endless thimbles of liqueur, the gypsies, at about 10 in the morning of Christmas Day, set out from their homes in the higher parts of town, banging on one another´s doors until a considerable gang has formed.
This noisy throng, as if drawn by the force of gravity, spills down to the bottom of the town in front of Montefrio´s great round church (the only one of its kind in Spain and modelled on Hadrian´s Tomb in Rome). Swarthy matrons conspicuously wave bottles of anis and swing their broad beams as, one by one, they stamp their way into the circle of singers, whose voices and hand-clapping crackle up into the chilly blue sky like a burst of uncontainable electricity.
Even the preposterous platform shoes and synthetic-leather mini-skirts of the raven-eyed girls cannot dispel the feeling I always have: that this is the same sound which was heard around the camp fires, amid the caravans, sleeping dogs and wailing babies of the gypsies´ nomadic forefathers. And I always take my guests at the Casas de Lorenzo down to the plaza, to show them that some modern-day Spaniards are still able to have fun without the assistance of a truck load of loudspeakers and electronic instruments.
Although the tale I want to tell begins on Christmas day 15 years ago, when I returned to the village after two decades of gypsy-like wandering in other parts of the world, I admit that the specifically Christmasy part of it ends there. The reader will however, I am sure, forgive me for not sticking to my subject, once she or he discovers how gripping the substance of the story is. With a good stretch of the imagination it might even be said to have a Christmasy message, similar to the famous English one about the watch fob and the comb.
I had by that time – 1983 - already made friends with Franci, the aspiring young guitarist who is now a Mallorca entrepreneur, and his outspoken mother Custodia, whose nickname is La Nana, or ¨the Midget¨. Knowing how keen I am on flamenco, Custodia told me to be in the plaza on Christmas morning to see how the gypsies did it. I was there with my camera and got some amusing shots of the goings-on.
The gypsies love being photographed and usually put special fire into their dancing if they know that it is being recorded for posterity, but that day - for the first and only time since - I got resistance, from one man. This picturesque fellow, with his slouched hat, long moustache, waistcoat and cane hanging from his arm, belonged to a family whose members are all virtually unable to speak – they are even known in the village as los mudos. He was walking with his two equally picturesque, and mute, sisters, with their long skirts and extraordinary hatchet-faces, behind me up the hill when I swerved around to take a picture of them all. But the man angrily waved his arm in my direction and made a series of unintelligible noises which clearly indicated that he did not want to be photographed.
I would have forgotten about this tiny cloud on the horizon completely, had it not been for a visit I received at my cortijo near the village, no less than 8 years later, by the two mute sisters, by this time well on in age. All I could understand from their imploring grunts and gesticulations were the words ¨mi papá¨ and ¨retrato¨, my Dad and picture, so I drove them back into town and found one of their neighbours who could explain.
It seemed that their father had recently died but they only had a single photograph to remember him by, taken when he did his military service sometime around the Civil War, and that they had been lamenting on this fact in the barrio. But when my friend Custodia heard about it, she said she recalled that el inglé (my nickname here) had taken some pictures one Christmas Day years ago in which she was certain that their father appeared.
As is well known, some peoples believe that photographs capture a person´s soul, and even though this may not strictly apply to the Andalucian gypsies, there can be no doubt that for many of them a photograph is more than just a piece of printed paper representing someone at a fleeting moment in his or her life. Just ask my friend the local photographer, Federico Marfil, and he´ll tell you how, when the gypsies come to have their portraits taken, they refuse to have just their faces or upper parts photographed, and demand to have their whole bodies included in the view, from snap-brimmed hat to shiny shoes... The two sisters, therefore, were persuaded that I, el inglé, was harbouring somewhere among my possessions the only living icon of their departed father ever to be taken after he had engendered them and their other mute siblings, and they wanted it.
I went through all of my old photos that night but couldn´t find them – they must have been left in the storage room of my mother-in-law´s tiny house on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, when I brought Nina and her mum to Spain (and they´re probably still there today, unless the Brazilian humidity or burglars have done away with them). But the sisters wouldn´t accept this explanation, perhaps because they had no idea that ¨Brasil¨ was much too far away for me to go there just for them, and they kept coming back to my door, entreating me each time with greater pathos to release this precious document without which they were unable to properly mourn their father.
At last, I broke down and decided to set aside an entire morning to going through the big box of negatives stored in my attic. After some hours I found the strips of film taken that Christmas Day, and, unable to identify any elderly male face who could possibly be their father, took them to Federico to have them all developed.
The sisters, when shown them, immediately pounced on a shot of at least thirty people, some dancing and others standing about, pointing excitedly at the figure of a man in a shabby grey suit and hat... but with his back turned to the camera. Only part of his face, with the characteristic sideburn and moustache, could be seen. I exclaimed incredulously, ¨But you can´t see his face!¨, to which they chortled in unison – and this time I could understand all three words they spoke - ¨Pero es él! – But it´s him!¨.
I suppose I should wind up this strange but true story by saying that it made me really feel like Father Christmas. The two sisters adore me to this day, always hailing me as I drive past in incoherent monosyllables, and they even give me special rebates on the laundry baskets I buy from them for my rental cottages.
But the most touching thing is that their brother, the one who once gruffly refused to let me photograph him, came personally to express, as he best he could, his gratitude precisely for having taken the picture of his father. He even invited me to their house to have a beer and eat some ham, which I never did. I should have thought at the time of asking him to let me, finally, take his own photo, because not long ago he went the way of his dear papá. So all I can do for the man now, by way of a retrato, is to draw him from memory, going up the hill with his sisters after the fiesta gitana.