The big annual royal sales pitch took place on Saturday night, as Spaniards began their long-awaited Christmas Eve dinner at home, a few million of them still willing to lend King Felipe five or ten minutes of their time as the wine was opened or the prawns were brought to the table, to see how His Majesty framed the nation this year in his speech, with all its problems and problematic characters, before getting stuck into a bit of Yuletide brawling with their closest relatives.
It was the least watched King's speech for many years, less exciting than even King Juan Carlos's final attempt in 2013, which capped off a couple of years that included the elephant hunting scandal in 2012 and ongoing health problems. Felipe VI managed a new low, dropping below six million viewers for the first time, to 5.8 million, or 57.6% of the audience at that hour on Christmas Eve.
This year, with the exception of the miniature manger on the shelf, an Easter flower in front of the desk and a brief reference to the concept of "birth" at the beginning of the speech, there was no mention of religion or the Christian aspect of the festival. "Jesus," "Joseph," "Mary," "manger," "Bethlehem," "church," and "Catholic" came not out of the monarch's mouth. And the reference to "birth" bordered on the heretic: "Christmas is birth, and celebrating birth with joy is to have faith in the future". Faith in the future, not faith in the past or in the doctrine of the Catholic Church!
There were, however, several symbols of reason and thought carefully crafted onto the royal stage for the event. The mini manger was framed between books and the Spanish dictionaries of the Real Academia. His Majesty communicated from the (relative) simplicity of his palace office, not last year's more ostentatious salons, and a ruler and even a magnifying glass could be seen on the desk along with a pot of pens. Overlooking everything from Anton Raphael Mengs's painting on the wall was Carlos III. We were told in 2014, after Felipe VI's proclamation, that the 18th Century "enlightened despot" was the new King's favourite role model.
After 2016 brought the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the constitutional vote in Italy, the inclusion of the European flag—almost hidden behind the Spanish flag—was also significant, but the rest of the continent only got a single generic mention in the actual speech: "we have to keep looking forward as we build our country, and as we build Europe too."
There were six key aspects to the speech: sacrifice and difficulties; the future and the passage of time; youth and education; coexistence, society and families; work; and then values and respect. All subtly intertwined in what we might call a joined-up thought in the royal mind, underlying the institutional references and within the limitations of the exercise.
His Majesty acknowledged the sacrifice and difficulties that many Spaniards have endured since the economic crisis began: "I am sure our collective memory will reserve a place of honor in history for these times of sacrifice and self-denial, but also of generosity and improvement". Note the verb tense: "will reserve", which is to say not "has already reserved" because the suffering for many is not yet over.
"And I have to say that, on my journey through our towns and cities, I have seen difficulties and problems for many of our compatriots; but also hard, honest, sacrificed work, great capacity and talent, and, above all, determination, a desire to move forward."
There were several references to the future or to moving forward and they contained a certain double meaning: on the one hand, it seems he recognises there is still much work to be done in Spain and, on the other hand, that another future is possible, if Spaniards are able to create it for themselves.
Here is another example: "It is true the crisis has imposed great sacrifices. Today, however, we live with the hope of a recovery that has already begun. We all want this recovery to continue, to allow us to create a lot more quality employment, and to correct the inequalities caused by a crisis as deep as the one we have experienced". The monarch was obliged to reference a still uncertain future, created by those inequalities and that "deep" crisis.
Uncertainty and suffering are not what the young Spaniards who will have to put up with the long-term effects of that crisis need or want. The King spoke of the necessity of "education that insures and constantly updates our knowledge" and "prepares our young people to be freer and more capable citizens of this new world". He spoke of creativity, work and the entrepreneurial spirit "as characteristics and demands of the society of the future, which is already the society of today".
Finally, he made some remarks about the Catalan problem and the notion of respect, obviously without making any direct references to Catalonia, Puigdemont, Colau, Forcadell or the CUP members who so gleefully burn photos of him and or cut his head off with a paper guillotine on YouTube. "Democratic coexistence", he said, must be "based on respect for the law". Perhaps these bits were also half-addressed to the national politicians who could not agree on a new government for almost a whole year in 2016, and only then "solved" the problem by organising a palace coup in the PSOE. Surely His Majesty was thinking of the chaos in the Socialist Party, of the parliamentary references to quick lime and Felipe González made by Podemos's Pablo Iglesias and Esquerra's Rufián, or of Rafael Hernando's arrogant and contemptuous retorts in Rajoy's name.
Making a speech about sacrifice and the suffering of the people from a palace, trying to transmit empathy and understanding to young people about an uncertain future when one has one's needs fully taken care of and has received the best of upbringings, or defending national unity under the rule of law when two million of one's citizens in a certain Spanish region want to leave to create another state—and a republic to boot—must not be easy. The carefully crafted royal office scene and the subtext of the different messages were perhaps attempting to convey that Zarzuela Palace "is working" to fix all the problems. Perhaps. But fewer Spaniards than ever bothered to listen.