Fiesta de los Reyes in Chinchon: Epiphanies on separateness and solidarity

Last night the pueblo of Chinchon celebrated the Fiesta de Los Reyes on the Plaza Mayor, a famous traditional bullfighting ring. Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day) is particularly special for children in Spain, who traditionally receive their gifts on Epiphany, rather than on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day itself, as we did growing up in the UK.

For some reason, I expected the kings to arrive in at the Plaza de Mayor in a cavalcade of horses, or at least the very least donkeys, since both have appeared in the Plaza recently in other contexts. But their parade entered from a corner of the Plaza to dramatic drum rolls: a line of floats pulled by shiny tractors with enormous tires and small children perched solemnly behind glass windows next to the drivers.
Once the Reyes arrived at the life size creche, they descended portable staircases one at a time to pay homage to the very real Holy Family awaiting them with a very real baby Jesus.


The plaza swarmed with excited children who had been running around for hours, setting off firecrackers and kicking up the dust as they worked off their energy in anticipation of the festivities. Parents strolled around with babies in prams, greeting friends, and carrying toddlers on their shoulders so they could see above the heads of the crowds.
Teenagers in costume were everywhere, riding on floats, posing as clowns, and serving in the retinues of los Reyes. Some were even in the creche as members of the Holy Family and poor shepherds. This fiesta has been going on for centuries in Spain, although this particular parade and public distribution of gifts is only a few decades old in Chinchon, according to my sources. The delight in the older peoples’ eyes at the children’s high spirits showed grandparents’ reliving memories of their own youthful Dia de Reyes.
Much as I enjoyed being in the thick of the festivities, particularly watching the children and all the hugs they were getting, I badly missed having my own grandchildren there to enjoy it, and felt like an outsider, an impostor. I am a recently arrived foreigner with no children here, and no family. I will always be an outsider at events like this. It’s not my culture, not my tradition. I have no national culture or tradition of my own, having grown up around the world, always appreciating other peoples’ cultures like a tourist or voyeur.

If I set the ideas of national culture or identity aside, though, I see there are cultures I have been, and still am part of: as a student, I was part of university culture; as a professional rider and instructor, I was part of the horse culture, or tribe; as a mother, I was and still am part of the global culture of families, and now grandmothers! I am also part of the transnational culture of writers, political activists, and hospice volunteers. For my sins, I now “belong to” the Roman Catholic church.

I do feel part of the what the church calls its “mystical body”, which includes my Budapest English mass community, which comprises a motley bunch of foreigners like myself. I feel part of the community of the church in the “big” sense of the faith as a whole: the thousand-year old tradition of mysticism and the spirituality that is the global connective tissue, although not the exclusionary rituals and language, or the male hierarchy.

When I was baptised a few years ago, I was overjoyed that I was to include myself in Paul’s statement to the Ephesians, being no longer a foreigner and stranger, but a fellow citizen with God’s people and also a members of his household. For the first time I had found a community that was broad enough and deep enough for me, unconfined by the national identity I could never relate to. Having been born in the Philippines, with a very English mother and an American father, and never having lived in the country my passport identified me as a citizen of, I could never answer the question people always ask when they first meet, “where are you from?”

That said, I also “know” conceptually at least, that the sense of separateness I felt in the Plaza Mayor last night is itself is an illusion: the “optical illusion of consciousness” Einstein referenced, since we all actually, existentially, participate in, are part of, one and the same cosmic body. We are all connected, even though that’s not how we/I usually experience everyday life, particularly the emotions of loss or grief, which sharpen the illusion of isolation. The fact that we all (paradoxically) share the experience of separateness in one way or another, doesn’t prove the experience is true, but does give those of us who want to overcome it, grounds for universal solidarity and compassion.

So yes it is true that a community such as this one in Chinchon will never accept “me” as one of their own, even if I were to marry into it, which is certainly not on my to do list. I will always be an expat, a foreigner, wherever I go. Will I always feel apart though, never a part of, a community such as this one? Will I ever stop seeing myself as separate? Would that even be desirable, or just another layer of illusion?

Writing about separation this time taught me that overcoming the breach begins by accepting it, and allowing myself to experience the felt sense, the insider/outsider tension. When I allow myself to feel this particular tension, I share the pangs of isolation and apartness all beings feel in one situation or another, and a sense of clarity, openness, and paradoxically of oneness, settles in. Then I experience the Epiphany. “It’s all good mom”, as my kids say.

Bring on the clowns! Viva Los Reyes!



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I am a political theorist, oblate in the Order of St.Benedict, and advocate for universal rational access to essential controlled medicines for pain and palliative care in the lower and middle income countries. I work a lot in Vienna at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and in Geneva at the World Health Organisation, and the Human Rights Council representing the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care.

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