On Christmas Day, Glasgow-based professor John Atkinson recieved a message from his cousin, Tracey Baucells, who lives in Catalonia. She contacted him from the fields outside Lledoners Prison, where pro-independence Catalan political prisoners are being held. Baucells joined mass demonstrations of solidarity outside Spanish jails with thousands of others. This is her story ...

An 'Independentist' Christmas

Christmas Day was different this year.

Typically, we'd lounge around watching cheesy films, slowly digesting a copious meal and maybe go for a walk in the early evening to get some air. But December 25, 2018, saw us don warm clothing, pack our "estelades", a thermos, and the dog into the van and set out at 6pm towards Sant Jaume de Vilatorrada, the small town nearest the prison of Lledoners where the 7 male Catalan political prisoners are being held.

We had decided to share part of our Christmas with them.

When we arrived at the fields overlooking the prison, an hour and ten minutes before events were supposed to start, there were already 60 or 70 vehicles parked, and a steady stream arriving behind us. We made our way to the meeting point, marked by five straggly pines, festooned with banners, flags and yellow ribbons. Upbeat music played over the loudspeakers. The frigid night air was mitigated by several braziers, roaring and shooting sparks into the heavens as they were coaxed into bringing forth as much heat as possible. Protesters crowded around them or stood and sat in groups nearby, chatting, some sharing items of food or drink with one another. Others were taking pictures of the huge Christmas tree, of the crèche in the form of a model half-ruined medieval church, or of the giant, illuminated star, which usually tops the mountains over Tona, an hour away, but which had been towed to Lledoners to shine above us all, prisoners and public alike.

As 8pm drew nearer, over the makeshift PA system, the organisers offered apologies for the lateness of the various musicians and others who were to lead the event. They were stuck in traffic. An understatement. When we glanced in either direction along the approach road, all we could see was a never-ending procession of headlights, snaking though the darkness, edging slowly towards us.

We realised there must be thousands of us, all willingly giving up cosy comforts and family gatherings to congregate on this chilly, windswept plain and bring a little Christmas spirit to those who were prevented from joining their own loved ones on this day.

From time to time, we shouted chants of "freedom for political prisoners", "independence", "not a single step backwards", and "there aren't prisons enough for [fettering] so much dignity".

READ MORE: Catalan prisoners enjoy Christmas display outside jails

Then the event began. A haunting solo of Pau Casals' "Song of the birds", played by well-known saxophonist, Pep Poblet, floated down over the starkly floodlit roofs below us. We sang carols, and a pop song ["Bona Nit", by Els Pets], specially adapted for the occasion. In lieu of candles, we lit our mobile phone "torches" and held them aloft, waving them prisonwards.

The most emotional part of the evening was when members of the jailed leaders' families stepped onto the mini stage to thank us. Last to speak was the sister of Jordi Turull. "We thought we'd be alone here today", she said, "but you’ve caused traffic jams on ALL the major roads and motorways to be with us. Thank you all. YOU are our Christmas!” As one, we all chanted loudly "You are not alone!".

Moments later, she said “I’ve got an incoming call”. She then placed her phone against the microphone and everyone was able to hear her brother, live, over the loudspeakers. (This was the first time his voice had been heard publicly since he was transferred to Lledoners). We listened to his words and yelled back our responses, in unison. He relayed best wishes from all seven prisoners and said that he couldn’t thank us enough, that they could hear us perfectly from inside the prison and that they wouldn’t give up, that we would all get through this. Our presence, he said, lent them strength and resolve. As the call ended, the enormous crowd chorused "Bon Na-dal" (Merry Christmas), over and over again, in synchrony, as if we'd been practising together for weeks.

At 8:45pm, the multitude hushed completely in readiness for something that happens every evening, and had done for 175 days: An anonymous young man, known only as “Joan Bonanit” (“Good night Joan") calls out to the prisoners with a megaphone. He names each one in turn and says good night to them. He also says good night to the two women political prisoners, Carme Forcadell and Dolors Bassa (his words are relayed to those mounting vigile at the two other prisons and broadcast via loud-speaker). When the four hunger-striking prisoners were transferred to the penal hospital in Terrassa, Joan “Bonanit” travelled there every evening to wish them goodnight.

Joan Bonanit​ calls goodnight and happy Christmas to each prisoner 

After each name was called, we cheered when the prisoner in question yelled back a response to Joan. Joan finishes every evening with the words “We want you home”. Tonight, he added "Bon Nadal!", which we echoed, thunderously.

The evening ended with the singing of the Catalan national anthem, and we and the dog slipped away quickly to our vehicle. Despite our promptness, it took us an hour to leave those fields.

As we drove to rejoin the main road, we saw cars and coaches parked in every possible inch of space; lining the roads and off-ramps, piling up in entranceways and even neatly crowning the roundabouts.

It was only then that we truly realised just how many thousands of people had felt the need to bring Christmas to Lledoners.