Spain: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

High Days and Holidays

The gay, light-hearted, pleasure-loving Spaniard delights in merry-making, and numerous are the national excuses for public rejoicing. National holiday celebrations are supplemented by local gala-days in honour of patron saints, by local fairs, and local pilgrim-ages. And when custom fails to provide a general entertainment for the day, there is more than likely to be good reason for family festivities, in that this partitular day happens to be the anniversary of the saint after whom father, mother, or one of the children is named.

Let us begin the Spanish round of public holidays at Christmas-tide. The great time for fun and frolic is Christmas Eve, La Noche Buena. The churches are a blaze of lights. The markets are packed with pyramids of oranges, melons and lemons. The shops are brilliantly illuminated and profusely decorated with ribbons and flowers, and equally gorgeous booths cater for the extra custom at this period of feasting and revelry. Bonfires are lighted; a great slaughter of turkeys is enacted, to the loud accompaniment of protests screeched by the flocks of birds awaiting their last moment; streets are thronged with an excited populace, diving in and out of shops, dancing on the pavements, processing along the roads, lingering to enjoy the sights; and everywhere there are sounds of music—tambourines jangling, guitars tinkling, voices ringing out the joyous refrain:

"This is the eve of Christmas;

Let us drink and take our fill."

Nacimientos  take the place of our Christmas-trees. These are pasteboard representations of the Nativity, with terra-cotta figures. In a manger lies a model of the Infant Christ, near by stand the Holy Mother and St. Joseph, the ox and the ass are enstalled, the Wise Men are worshipping the Holy Child, and there are angels hovering around. Nacimientos  are eagerly purchased by the children, who love them dearly, and there is one lighted up in every house, from the richest mansion to the poorest hovel.

Many supper-parties are given on Christmas Eve, but all the festivities come to an end shortly before midnight, when the church-bells summon all good Christians to Mass. In one respect Christmas Day in Spain is like our Boxing Day, for this is the time when the postman and numerous other outside "servants expect a Christmas-box; it is also the custom in Spain, as with us, for the family to give presents to the house-hold servants on this anniversary.

New Year's Day is but a minor festival. Nevertheless, it is revered as a faithful fortune-teller, for there is a general belief that this day's events will govern the whole year's luck. Empty pockets on the first day of the year mean empty pockets for the next twelve months; a full purse on January i augurs a full purse onwards to December 31. There is also a superstition akin to our anxiety that the Old Year shall be let out of the house, and the New Year ushered in, by people who have hair of fixed lucky shades. In Spain the all-prevalent anxiety on New Year's Eve concerns the first person who will be met outside the house in the New Year. If a wealthy man is encountered, good luck is in store; but if a beggar is the first passer-by, ill luck may be expected.

Twelfth-Night Eve, January 5, brings the festival best beloved by children. The morrow is the Feast of the Three Kings, the anniversary of the occasion when the Wise Men sought Christ to present Him with their gifts, and in memory of this sacred event Spanish children are presented with gifts at Epiphany-time. Spanish boys and girls await the coming of the Magi in just the same high state of excitement as English boys and girls await Father Christmas, and they too have to make preparations for the occasion. Instead of hanging up a stocking at the foot of the bed, they put out a shoe on the balcony, and in it a wisp of straw for the Magi's horses. Then the little people go to bed; but it is difficult for them to sleep, for out of doors a great uproar is being made. Numbers of young men, attended by the usual crowd of vagabonds, are rushing to meet the Magi; the procession, carrying ladders, torches, and drums, surges from one gate of the city to another. There is no sign of the Wise Men coming this way; surely they must be coming that way or by the other road. At sunrise the people begin to go home, dejectedly giving up all hope of meeting the Magi till next Twelfth-Night Eve. A little later the children begin to awake and steal out on to the balcony. Yes, the Magi have been through the town, for all the wisps of straw have gone, and all the shoes are packed with presents. And if anyone doubts the testimony of the shoes merely because the crowd who went to look for the Wise Men did not find them, there is some further strong evidence to prove that the immortal visitors came this year as usual, for there are many sensible little boys and girls who are quite certain that they heard the clattering hoofs of the Magi's horses first in the distance, then coming nearer and nearer, so near that . . . well, just at that moment they fell asleep.

Another January festival is the Feast of St. Anthony, the patron of mules, donkeys, and horses. On St. Anthony's Day the cattle that are under his especial care are marched forth to receive a blessing, but for days beforehand there is great excitement over the preparations for the ceremonial. Special attention is bestowed on the festival toilet of the mules and donkeys, and the gipsies, who can clip skilfully and artistically, are called upon to help dress them. Here is a picture of a mule ready to set out on the journey to the priest, who is awaiting his curious flock in some distant centre of civilization. The legs and under part of its body are ornamented with their natural winter covering; its head is bedecked with a bright scarlet silk net and a bridle, whose silver bells tinkle under the slightest provocation; a beautiful bunch of flowers has been worked by the clippers on its shoulders; over its back are slung gaily-coloured saddle-bags; and on its hind-quarters are clipped a collection of decorative details, such as stars, daggers, guitars, flags, and darts. The final scene of this festival is charged with excitement; among the animals waiting their turn to be taken to the priest to receive their barley wafer there is a dual spirit of rivalry working in the interests of noise—all the horses combine to neigh against the braying of all the donkeys, whilst each animal endeavours to make its voice heard above that of its neighbours. The mules in particular add to the general commotion when the time comes for being led up to the priest, for it is then that they are in their most stubborn mood, and ready to kick out vigorously at anyone who may try to get them to move in the priest's direction. The attendants lose patience and temper, blows are returned for kicks, angry voices are often heard loudest amidst the din, and a general pandemonium makes the ceremonial of blessing the animals unique as a sacred festival.

February brings carnival-time, the merriest season in the whole of Spain's merry year. Democracy reigns supreme, everybody being as good as his neighbour when all are masked and disguised. The streets are a constant scene of revelry, from midday till mid-night, for the three days preceding Ash Wednesday. Peasants and nobles make up the gay throng of maskers, but for the time being the courtier poses as a beggar, the beggar as a courtier; staid citizens don fancy costume, and rush about in a wild state of excitement, their schoolboy hearts rejoicing over one prank and planning another; ladies being driven round to see the sights smile graciously on the motley band who hold up the carriage to pay homage to the fair occupants; the air rings with the shouts of joy sent up by children's voices, and is gay with multi-coloured showers of confetti, rained down with as much zest by the grown-ups as by the energetic boys and girls. Two characteristic features of these festivities make carnival-time in Spain an ideal season of rejoicing: there is no drunkenness, and liberty is never allowed to degenerate into licence.

Ash Wednesday brings carnival to an end with the ceremony of "burying the sardine." The nature of the sardine and the method of interring it differ in various parts of the country—a little piece of pork is buried deep in the earth, or a piece of meat is thrown into the river—but whatever be the particular custom followed, the significance thereof is the same in all parts of Spain: the time of feasting has passed, the Lenten season of fasting has come round once more. All through Lent devout Spaniards throng the churches, and keep candles burning at the numerous shrines. Holy Week brings its series of most interesting sacred customs. Again these differ with locality, but they are all related through the national spirit of devotion to the Church. One of the most popular Holy Week ceremonies takes place on the Thursday at Madrid. After morning service the Queen receives about a dozen paupers at the Royal Palace, washes their feet in commemoration of Christ washing the disciples' feet, and concludes the lavatorio  by distributing alms.

Good Friday is the occasion of a grand procession in every village and town, the great feature of which consists in the "Pasos," or groups of sculptured effigies, which are painted and dressed up to represent scenes in the Passion. Many of these Pasos are of great value, both intrinsically and as works of art; some of the finest are the property of religious associations in Seville, a city which is specially famous for its Good Friday procession. Here the great sacred drama is known under the name of "El Carnaval Divino"—a very suggestive title, which calls up a general picture of the procession in all parts of the country.

On Easter Sunday all traces of mourning have vanished, and Spain is once more en fete. The churches are profusely decorated with flowers, and everyone attends morning service in best clothes; the women are especially noticeable by a universal change in a detail of national costume, for this is a special occasion when they wear white mantillas instead of the everyday black ones. In the afternoon the best bull-fight of the year takes place in every town which favours the national sport, and from far and near there flock to every arena men, women, and children, chattering excitedly and incessantly in sporting phraseology about their favourite bull-fighter and the various details of the ring.

Another prominent national festivity is celebrated on Corpus Christi Day, which generally takes place the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Pasteboard giants are a great feature of the grand processions which parade the streets on this occasion. Nearly every Spanish town numbers a team of these giants among its municipal properties, and they are as dearly beloved by Spanish children as was "Snap" in the not-long-ago days by English boys and girls.