A Carefully Constructed Christmas

Such was the build up to Christmas in Cartagena that it seemed to me that the 25th of December must be an explosion of a day, a sort of Yule-tide catharsis after months of sugary expectation. This surely would be the one day of the year when the entire city would stop what it was doing to share a collective smile and a sigh of relief that the gruelling anticipation was over and it was time to enjoy the fruits of the preparations. However, once again in this city of contradictions, just when I thought I knew what to expect and where I was, the complete opposite occurred and I was left feeling no wiser to the traditions of Cartagena than when I arrived almost half a year ago. .

On Christmas day I called a friend excitedly, breathlessly wishing him a merry Christmas, and he seemed surprised at the nature of my greeting, as if he had forgotten what day it was. I asked him what he was doing on this most special of days, with visions of a beach side Christmas party: turkey with a Piña Colada, a Santa hat with swimming trunks and “Feliz Navidad” written in the sand. “No, nothing. Washing clothes,” was the response. Washing clothes? On Christmas day? The very everydayness of this humble activity was incomprehensible to my English Christmas Carol sensibilities and childish notions of a day in which the whole world is obliged to feel merry, adore its family and cheerfully play tedious games that would be unthinkable on any other day of the year. But thinking about it, having stepped out onto the street, the city seemed no different to how it had yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. The shops were open, the roads were being swept, cigarette and ice-cream vendors were selling their wares. It was just a normal day in Cartagena and people were getting on with their lives.

This unsettled me. Who were the lights, the concerts, the food and the parties for if not for the Cartageneros? But of course I would have naively thought that, me being exactly who the exaggerated preparations were intended for: Christmas in Cartagena is aimed at tourists and foreigners who assume that it truly is the most important thing in the world, bar nothing. The rest of the city stretches itself to breaking point to ensure that every wish is catered for. I will of course write home and tell England that Christmas in Cartagena is truly magical and beautiful and wonderful, because it was, for me. However, I cannot help but feel a creeping sense of discomfort that I have been fleeced, as anyone who is really from or really knows Cartagena understands that it is just a gaudily painted illusion, created at the expense of those to whom the city really belongs.

On the 26th December, the city was finally united in a shared emotion but sadly not the one I had been expecting. After almost 2 dry weeks following the months of rain, the heavens finally opened again. The tourists groaned because their boat trips to the islands were cancelled at great inconvenience to the holiday itinerary, while the rest prayed that Cartagena, the Cartagena that lies beyond the fun and the music, where thousands live in neighbourhoods below sea-level, would not flood again and leave yet more homes ruined. The rains lasted only a day, yet served as a harsh reminder of the brutally destructive winter that Cartagena has struggled to cope with. Of course the city was not celebrating Christmas Day, it was just waiting for this horror of a year to end in order to start afresh, or just a return to normality.

And so now as the tourists begin to fade away and the bulbs of the Christmas lights begin to falter the dust is clearing and Cartagena will emerge, a little battered and bruised after the onslaught of the festive period. It would be an enormous lie to suggest that I have not enjoyed Christmas and New Year here, but my English eyes were perhaps blinded by the city’s extensive efforts to create the ultimate holiday experience. Something that has struck me about every single person I have met in Cartagena is their passion for this city and their willingness to share it with the rest of the world. Of course we are all aware that it is not without its deep seated problems, but so many strive to demonstrate that it is an incredible city to be truly proud of. I only hope that visitors to Cartagena appreciate the selflessness of the people and city behind the flashing lights.