I’m standing staring at a tortoise that represents the land. It’s squished by, or holding up, a column. The column’s symmetrical partner is held up by a turtle representing the sea.
Now, I’m not very good at understanding Christianity, and much of my knowledge of Catholicism comes from reading historical fiction (the Borgia books by Kate Quinn or the Tudor books by Philippa Gregory) or that one time I went to a Catholic mass and got told off for crossing my legs. So when I looked at the ‘minor basilica’ (it’s not a cathedral because no bishop sits there) and I saw a Christmas tree, I wondered why.
I consulted Wikipedia on my phone and a friend consulted a guidebook.
Turns out, the whole scene at that wall of the fancy church is the story of the Nativity and Jesus’ early life, tortoise and turtle included. There are babies being slaughtered, shepherds with their lambs, some rich men and a cow and a horse looking surprised to see a newborn baby. To the side are scenes of Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt on a donkey, the precocious child Jesus lecturing the priests on how to be good, and a young man practising his carpentry skills.
My strongest memories of learning and writing about the Christmas story are from primary school. First, there was the day that I was ill from school and my three best friends all volunteered to be wise men. I ended up as a star. Second, the teacher spent the first ten minutes of the lesson talking about angles instead of angels and saying how we were all certain to spell it wrong, so much so that when I finally came to describe dear Gabriel I was convinced that my spelling ‘angel’ must be wrong that I went through my work and carefully changed my angels to angles.
The same teacher had criticized my work on the turnip story four years earlier. I’m not bitter much.
Having seemingly missed out on the real religious meaning behind Christmas, I went on to study the Victorians, who I discovered introduced the idea of the Christmas tree to England. This is also apparently wrong, as according to Wikipedia Victoria already had Christmas trees as a child. The tradition it seems did however come from Germany which since the royal family were German makes sense.
In any case, for Gaudi, who took over designing the church in 1883, to have thought to put a Christmas tree on the facade seems to me forward thinking. And yet, maybe this is because it isn’t quite a Christmas tree. According to the Sagrada Familia website:
The cypress, a long-lived evergreen associated with hallowed ground since ancient times, symbolizes the eternal love of Christ. In Catalonia, the cypress is planted as a sign of welcome in local farmhouses.
I want to know if in Catalonia they really do plant trees inside farmhouses, or they plant them by farmhouses, or what they mean is at Christmastime they have a Christmas tree.
I don’t yet feel enlightened.