The great seisiúns tend to be celebrated around glowing fires in pubs which, although no longer hazy with fag smoke, are as redolent as ever with atmosphere and shadows and the mystique of old entertainment enjoyed by people who did not have pianos, but played fiddles and tin whistles, pipes and bodhráns from botháns in the Blaskets, across the length of Ireland to Tory Island in the far north.
Here, in the mildness of the Canary Islands, music is more often played outdoors. In Valle Gran Rey, in La Gomera, on an afternoon of bright sunlight, the music suddenly started and swirled up and down the valley; the fiesta had begun.
It was January 6, the Spanish Christmas, Fiesta de Los Reyes, the Feast of the Kings, when three kings trekked to the humble stable where they had been told by angels that a child was born that would change the world. Whether He ever changed human nature — upon which the world’s future and, nowadays, the future of all life on the planet depend — is arguable, but the son of Joseph and Mary certainly tried, and at great cost. This is recorded history, and a celebration of his birth is appropriate. As they say “God loves a trier”, and Jesus of Nazareth was certainly that. And, of course, he paid the price.
The 6th is the day of gift-giving and hospitality, and we began by visiting a neighbour’s house where the cava (Spanish champagne) flowed and the rooms swirled with voices, almost in time to the music blaring out from the churchyard of La Hermita de Los Reyes, the little white church perched on a terrace opposite the village of Casa de la Seda, The House of Silk, the church at which my son married his English bride eight months ago.
There, the Orquesta Gomera Caribe was in full swing, mounted on a large platform, 14 musicians in co-ordinated costumes, highly electrified and amplified to guarantee that they be heard a kilometre away, up the green terraces to the villages above and almost down to the banana plantations and beaches by the sea.
At 5pm, my friends and I, already in well-calibrated good form after the cava and the canapés (a long afternoon, evening and night of celebration lay ahead) crossed the valley via paths dappled in sunlight and climbed the hundred gentle steps to the plaza in front of the church where the shindig was in full swing.
You danced if you cared to dance. Some couples danced where they stood or favoured the area in front of the bandstand, while others just stood around, greeting and gossiping, kissing women young and old on both cheeks, shaking the men’s hands, and grinning and toasting the day in potions bought from the drinks stalls.
It was all swirl and skirl and pretty people — in the sunlight and dressed in colours in accord with the weather and the music, it was hard not to look well. A few Nordic walkers passed without stopping — the church is on a trail — but the celebrants were local. They came from the villages all over the island because Los Reyes is the biggest fiesta of the year and this little church, The Chapel of the Kings, is at its centre. Earlier, statues of the kings, one of them African, had been carried to the church, and a mass celebrated.
Shade was sought by some beneath the big ficus tree at the centre of the plaza or in the church where the five pews on either side of the aisle had patrons come to cool off, to pray, or to enjoy the altar resplendent with flowers. Flower arrangements two metres tall stood on either side of the seated Virgin, a corona of gold above her head and the gold-crowned Child on her lap, dressed in gilded skirts like the Infant of Prague.
While the salsa rhythms blared outside, Canarians have more family in South America than in Spain, there was a stillness in the shadows of the cool chapel, with its wood-carved stations of the cross on the white walls. Outside, festivities continued and music filled the valley until the first light of dawn.
Our gang finished at 2am at the local bar. Someone ordered cava as a pre-nightcap-nightcap from the owner, and we looked in disbelief as a plate of cabra (stewed goat) rather than a bottle of cava was served. Clearly, our friend, the proprietor had also been celebrating. Nobody said anything, and the cabra, with brimming carafes from his own bodega, was superb.