I want to share this with my friends. This was written by playwright and friend Marty Casella
To My Family and Friends -
It’s been difficult to write a holiday message this year. With the sulfurous election, the seemingly endless terrorist activities and some hard-hitting tragedies for close friends, life seems not only dark but mean. Mean as in the Dickensian sense of the word. That is… tough, harsh and larded with an underlying nastiness that is hard to shake. But Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice and other seasonal celebrations are, as always, about light, hope and belief in a better future. As my wonderful mom Shirley often says: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” With that in mind, here are some photos and thoughts about a seemingly faraway dawn, and how we must, as a society, always have hope.
I took the photos above on my recent trip to Spain. (for those of you who love the play NOISES OFF – “He ain’t home. He’s in Spine!”). They were taken in a recently rediscovered, thousand-year-old synagogue in Barcelona. This synagogue was lost for centuries post-1492, when Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand deported most of the Jews and Muslims in Spain. Many of those Jews ended up in the New World, in Brazil particularly, and later came to the U.S.; that’s another story for another Hanukkah. The magical, tiny, two-room stone synagogue six feet under the surface of modern day Barcelona was located after years of research, using tax records from the Middle Ages. Amazingly, the address on those records matched an address still in use, below a current structure which houses shops and a warehouse. Inside the first room, there is a glass floor which lets you look down onto Roman ruins, which were found under the synagogue. In the second room are many items, including old silver serving plates, silver Torah readers (each with a tiny silver finger attached to it) and, in its own glass display case, the synagogue’s ancient Torah. Which was found a few years ago in a bazaar in Tunisia. And then there was this stitched portrait of a menorah.There’s both solemnity and joy in this glorious creation. What a beautiful reminder it is that even during the darkest times, Hanukkah candles will be lit again and again. What a Hanukkah miracle that Barcelona synagogue is. Rediscovered and brought back to life years after vengeful and anti-Semitic Spanish royals thought they’d crushed it forever.
These photos are from the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, at dusk, just as the stars and the moon were appearing. The moon and stars were a longtime religious symbol to the Muslim Moors who conquered Spain in the eighth century, and ruled it until 1492. I learned a lot about the Moors in Spain. Probably the most famous Moor that most of us know is Shakespeare’s OTHELLO, a love-struck black general whose jealous lieutenant Iago drives Othello into a murderous rage. The Moors, who were of Arab and Berber descent, came from North Africa. They brought to Spain stunning architecture, including much glorious tile work scattered across the Iberian Peninsula. Two of the loveliest Moorish buildings in the world are the Alcazar in Sevilla, and the enchanting Alhambra in Granada. Granada, by the way, is the Spanish word for pomegranate. Hence the non-alcoholic, sticky red bar syrup known as grenadine. Both stunning structures, which are nearly 1000 years old, include palaces, forts, gardens and endless fountains. The Moors, being Muslims, celebrated many Eids - holidays - ranging from Mohammed’s birth (which took place in early December) to the Arabic New Year. When Spain was united and the Catholic Royal Family banished Muslims, many of the customs the Moors left behind were continued. Much of their gorgeous architecture also remains.
Speaking of Catholics, families and architecture, here are three photos from the most famous Catholic church in Spain.
They’re from Antonin Gaudi’s jaw-dropping Familia Sagrada Cathedral in Barcelona. Construction is still going on after over 100 years. It’s a huge, rough place of worship and wonder, done in the Moderniste style of the early 20th century. It was also the most crowded tourist site we visited in Spain. To paraphrase a well-known prose writer, I loved it but I didn’t like it. It reminded me of a gigantic Texas mega-church crossed with a surreal Mall of the Americas. I know it’s the masterpiece of a genius, but when I visited another nearby church in Barcelona, a simple stone chapel built in the 14th century, it felt more contemplative and far more spiritual than all of Gaudi’s smoke and mirrors. Familia Sagrada isn’t finished yet; maybe I’ll like it more next time.
The one thing I did whole-heartedly adore though was the western entrance to the church, which is known simply as The Nativity Door. Included there are The Three Wise Men aka The Magi aka The Three Kings. In the above photo, they kneel reverently before the newborn King, parump-pum-pum-pum. They wear cool, butch, medieval clothing in which they look like lost Crusaders. The Three Kings technically didn’t get to the Christ Child until Epiphany, which is on January 6th, but they are an important part of the Nativity, which is what Christmas is really all about, right? One last thing about the Wise Men: their Gifts to Baby Jesus. Gold is what you give a King. Frankincense is used to perfume the air around a King. And in a prescient nod toward the Christ Child’s future, myrrh is used to embalm a King. These Three Wise Guys were really wise.
To the many people who don’t celebrate a winter religious holiday, but still like to honor The Longest Night Of The Year, or The Winter Solstice or The Day When The Light Begins To Return, I say huzzah! Celebrations of every kind are always good! And what better what to celebrate the coldest, dreariest months of the year than with chocolate? At the end of my travels, I visited longtime family friends in Brussels, Belgium. We stayed about fifteen minutes from Waterloo, where Napoleon was finally beaten by the English, who had joined forces with other European armies. The battlefield is haunting and ghostly. That battle site is also where we get the expression “to meet one’s Waterloo.” Which is when an enemy - or anyone in general who is a sadistic, war-mongering, egomaniacal autocrat like Napoleon - is finally beaten for good. That expression is also the title of an Abba song. To meet one’s Waterloo. Keep that in mind. Don’t you love words? Anyway. Chocolate.
In Belgium, and much of Europe, they celebrate December 6th as St. Nicholas Day. Every chocolate shop in town – there are many, many, many chocolate shops in Brussels – is filled with delicious, mouth-watering chocolate versions of St .Nick. Some are the size of your thumb and some are three feet tall. Who was Saint Nicholas besides a precursor (and the basis for) Sinterklaas and/or Santa Claus? He was born in 270 in Patara, which was part of the Roman Empire. He was known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker, and was legendary for secret gift-giving. You can see where that led to. Nikolaos… Saint Nicholas… Sinterklaas… Santa Claus. St. Nick is famous for bringing back to life three children who had been killed by a mad butcher and whose bodies – now brining in a barrel – would soon be eaten. Superhero St. Nicholas saw through the barrel, opened it and resurrected the kids. He is also celebrated for saving three orphaned sisters from prostitution by secretly throwing bags of gold through their open window so they could pay their bills and remain chaste. In one version, St. Nick dropped bags of gold down their chimney. Because of these stories, Nicholas became the patron saint of children. He is often portrayed, even when he is made of chocolate, as sheltering rescued children under his cape.
In closing, I must say as I put this missive together, I began to see a pattern in the stories. How saviors, saints, heroes, and wise men and women come to the rescue of the poor and downtrodden of society, especially when tyrants and mad men seem to rule the day. It’s why we light Hanukkah candles. It’s why we have the light from the moon and stars to guide us. It’s why we adorn Christmas trees with lights. Because light is always stronger than darkness. Good is always stronger than evil, and the acts performed by evil people. Just think of that synagogue in Barcelona. Shut down by hate-filled, bigoted, fundamentalists. Lost for hundreds of years. Then rediscovered by men and women of faith. Think of St. Nicholas saving abused children from murder and misogyny. Think of the Moorish palaces, whose beautiful tile walls have outlasted the destruction wrought by short-sighted, ignorant kings and queens.
Don’t curse the darkness. Turn on a light. Be a rescuer. Be a hero. Do good.
Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Good Solstice, a Fine Birthday of Mohammed and a Glorious New Year.
Best and much love,
Happy Holidays to all of my friends- Carole P. Roman