Are the Kings Wizards?

Por: Francisco Almagro

–Where did I come from?
Where did you find me?–
asks the child about his mother.
She cries and laughs at the same time,
and narrowing it against his chest
he replies:
“You were hiding
in my heart, my love;
you were his wish.
Rabindranath Tagore

 


This January 5th a neighbor surprised me with a question: have you already bought the gift of the Kings for your children? In the face of my silence of seconds, he went on to explain: boy, the gift for the children, on January 6th, the Day of the Three Wise Men, don’t you remember? Yes, of course I remember, I answered at last; I said goodbye, and I followed the path in a marvel, because someone who had never set foot in a Catholic Church was encouraging me to give toys to my children within the most universal of The West’s children’s fantasies.
At another neighbor’s house, the final destination of my afternoon tour, a grandfather told me the odyssey to get his granddaughter’s gift. The tails are huge, people are buying toys of all kinds, many are downgraded in price, I was told exalted by the lord old enough to have met kings and wizards from other times. He added that they had enabled shops and departments only to sell toys, and that, like never before, parents carried fire cars, trucks, dolls, balls, bicycles and costumes, all to hide it from the children’s eyes, and surprise them the next day.
Although the rescue of this tradition, such as Christmas Eve, is a phenomenon that has been growing for some time, this beginning of 2005, according to many Habaneros, has been remarkable. It is difficult to understand what is happening in a country where there is no slightest reference to epiphany in the media for forty years; at school, not even out of cultural interest, it is taught that Kings Day was almost the only moment of freedom and feast for slaves during the colony; that one of the symbols of the Capital is actually called Castillo de Los Tres Magos del Morro; and, of minor but valid importance, the fact that almost all toys must be purchased with currency, a currency in which almost no compatriots pay.
Thus, journalistic material would be at the apparent contradiction of the news—meaning the notorious, and must be current, interesting, and important—the substantial increase in the purchase of toys and the resurrection of the custom of the Three Wise Men in Cuba. Many would undoubtedly be the causes of this phenomenon. Let’s try to explain just a few.


First, a necessary historical digression. I belong to the generation born at the beginning of the Revolution, the quadrennies, as someone with very good tino rates the Cuban baby boom – the demographic explosion of the sixties. In this way, what might seem to my normal children today– children’s circles, scholarships, field schools and so many other entities – began with the children we spend today or are close to forty years. We also saw other things like the Three Wise Men disappear.
How many Kings could I enjoy? I don’t know exactly. I think shortly before they were declared non grata people I already knew they were my own parents, which made me feel part of an illusion shared with the rest of the family. The night before I was trying to stay awake. Like all children, I didn’t make it. Until a day when I could see my parents, then married, speaking quietly; believing me sound asleep, they loaded the toys to hide them all over the house. I’ve forgotten a lot of details about my childhood. Not that day. In the afternoon, my grandmother had told my brother and me, once again, the story of the camels and the Magi: how they passed under the door turned into little antlets and we had to leave him grass and water; and not get up until the Magi had retired because the charm could be broken.
I also remember in pain how the elusive rulers of the East, or rather, the illusion of them, referred to; My parents’ arguments seemed to me, at such a young age, absurd: children were not correct to deceive them, that was a habit of the past, the date of January 6 could be any day of the year. The most illogical motive of all, for their mis-place dramatism, was that not every child in the world had toys. From now on, I was told, toys would be distributed to children alike. It was unlikely, at such a few years, that I would think of suggesting that it was not best to kill the Three Wise Men but to help them hand out more toys and more fairly.

Maybe others, adults, did think about it. Perhaps that’s why they invented a system of shifts over the phone – my mother and grandmother were about to lose their respective first phalanxes – and then shifts through the supply book. I could touch you on the 10th for the first day in the morning – a good place, no doubt; or the 5 for the fourth day in the afternoon – not so good. The shift only meant an order in the queue, which was, in itself, a madness with a shift and everything.
Once inside the store, each child got three toys. A basic one, which was the best. On the 10th of the first day in the morning, as my brother once touched – always with that luck for raffles! – he could take up a bicycle. But the poor 5 of the fourth day in the afternoon was on board; we would say in good Cuban that all he could aspire to was stubble. Maybe, and that was hope, next year with good fingers or a friend winemaker, I’d catch a better place.
After the basic toy he played the non-basic, not so good, but still with some dignity. And the stinker was the targeted toy. With that ease that Cubans have to invent names and change the meaning of things, the one directed was a toy that touched you by template, almost always horrific and simple – a ball, a game of yakis, a yo-yo; and that almost no child wanted but they all carried them, one by discipline and others because they were still away with their basic toy.
That lasted a few years. I don’t know how many. It’s true that every Cuban boy had toys then. I do not know if another society has achieved similar feat in favor of the little ones. Perhaps the price was to awaken from an innocent and healthy illusion to the rawest materiality; nor would it be to be ignored that on January 6th, as my parents predicted, disappeared as Children’s Day. This is an important detail in history.
I tell all this because Cubans have, as good products of the Tropic, changing and sensual, great tendency to forgetfulness. And without memory there is no reasoning, no present, and the future could be more unpredictable than it already is by nature. Without memory, like Alzheimer’s sufferers, we run the risk of getting lost even in our own home.

Let us see, thirty-two years later, my parents’ arguments for banishing the Three Wise Men from my illusions as a child, as I believe most of the parents of the time did, all – albeit wrong, in my opinion – by the best intentions and attentions.
If it were wrong to deceive children with stories of wizards and kings, all children’s stories of brothers Grimm, Perrault, Hoffmann, Andersen and Collodi should be disappeared from the houses. Under such analysis, the first book to be banned in homes would be José Martí’s The Golden Age, because to tell his stories, the author uses fantasies of greater poetic flight; I think, for example, that a poem as hard for a child for its burden of other people’s pain as Los Zapaticos de Rosa, would not be softened without the butterfly that sees from its rose the shoemakers stored in a glass.
It happens that in the psychology of the little ones there is as an ordinary state where fiction and reality are based, both essential for shaping their personalities. It is one thing to lie, to deceive, and another is to create an atmosphere of healthy optimism, of illusions and possible dreams. Moreover, in the case of the Three Wise Men, as in almost all children’s narratives, there is always a breath of peace, hope, good work, feeling and thinking, achieved through metaphors and morals where, necessarily, birds must speak, and men fly over the clouds.
The tradition of the Three Wise Men is a custom of the past. But it’s from our past: that of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. No more, no less, custom without which the cultural symbolic of the Cuban nation would lose part of its foundation of sustainability. It is a tradition that comes from Spain, a trunk in which other cultures were grafted, and as a half-breed tree, grew up in the Tropic. The root, however, is Spanish. It means that even if we do not profess the Catholic Christian faith, a majority part of the art, science, politics and daily life of Cubans, without us noticing it, is influenced by its values and traditions – with all its lights and shadows, as Archbishop Carlos Manuel de Céspedes likes to say.
By contrast, Santa Claus or Santa Claus is not Cuban. It never was. The island tropics were not his thing. The fat white-bearded man, dressed in a red suit and white trims, who travels on snow riding a reindeer sled, is an image coming from the United States and came to them, in the 17th century, from Europe. There are subtle differences between Santa and the Wizards of the East, which would do well for an essay on the globalization of a hegemonic cultural and religious model in Lands of Catholic Heritage such as Latin America. But space doesn’t allow it to spread into something so suggestive.
Although the argument of the date seems the least significant, it is perhaps the most important: the feast of the Epiphany – it means manifestation or appearance – cannot be detached from the Great Novelty that occurred twelve days earlier: Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. The Three Wise Men – magician, in Eastern Culture meant wise; it had nothing to do with prestidigitation—they are in the gospel account just because Jesus exists. They came to worship him like, and that seems to be the meaning given to him by the evangelist Matthew, any of us would do today. So if the date is no longer shortly after the Savior’s birth, what is the point? If a society were to be dechristianized on purpose, one of the most effective ways would be, in addition to suspending Christmas in order of importance, to celebrate the Three Wise Men – they would no longer be as kings nor so magicians – any day of the year.
As for the feast there can be a lot of material injustice, there is quite a reason for that. From a lifetime, parents can get expensive, beautiful and interesting toys for their children and other parents can’t. Here is the phrase that certain parents have to become magicians to buy their children a small gift. Others, kings, don’t have that problem. That’s how it was a long time ago. And that’s how it’s been again this year.

Montesquieu said that it is not necessary to do through laws what can be done through customs. Cuban society is rescuing the baptism of children, first communion, the Dances of Fifteen, marriage for the Church, Christmas Eve and The Day of Kings. No one has norman it; no institution defrays, encourages or propagates those, previously called, laggards of the past. So, what’s going on?
First there are cultural factors: the traditions of a people can be omitted for a while, but as a pier, as soon as the pressure ceases on them, they bounce with unusual force. Perhaps most quinceañeras, guests at the Dinner of the 24th or parents who buy toys for their children on the Day of Kings, will not know how to recover very Cuban customs dating back centuries. However, something tells them – curious atavism – that this is fine, that they are beautiful customs, and bring happiness to their children and friends. This has a dangerous side: they could stay in the figurative, as is unfortunately often the case because we are so prone to what Mañach called a lack of third dimension or depth of spirit.
There are also social and economic factors. The holding of convertible currency by a part of the population, and that almost all of the best products – including toys – are sold in that currency, creates a new socioeconomic class. New Class or New Rich – as I know it is an uncomfortable term, but there would be no better one – must be authenticated through new symbolic, spiritual and material imaginaries. The process of gaining a new identity on the basis of a recently acquired high economic and social level makes it inescapable from the possession of a cell phone and a satellite dish to the celebration of some Fifteen that would envy the damsels of the Vedado Tenis or the Miramar Yacht Club or the purchase of a toy of more than one hundred convertible pesos. In schools, parents tell me friends, some Cuban children already compete with others regarding the best and most expensive toy that the Kings brought him.
However, despite how flawed this rescue of traditions may have, the valid, the positive, is the process itself. It is just to say, the authorities facilitated the sales of toys this year with rebates and the opening of new stores. Some will say that out of economic urgency, and that is also a legitimate reason if the money raised brings more toys and dreams for Cuban children.
My generation, that of the quadrennies, is as to expectation, still not knowing very well how to do; many of us were killed by the Kings early, and now it turns out, as the Freemasons would say and Jorge Negrete would have asked us to believe of his death, that they were only asleep. This leads me to wonder if the Kings I met as a child are not real wizards and sages. Only in this way would the insomnia with which I have waited for them, again, this year be explainable.

 

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