Celebrating in Spain

Don Harris | October 2013

If you would like to experience something truly joyful, plan to join with the people of Zaragoza on any October 12th for the combined festivals commemorating Hispanic heritage: Feria del Pilar and the Día de la Hispanidad. 

It is not unusual for Spaniards to have a spontaneous celebration where the spiritual element merges with the secular to form a happy unity. As you read this, my wife Ruth and I are in Zaragoza to join the crowds of Spaniards in celebrating Día de la Hispanidad, in memory of the day Christopher Columbus and his crew encountered a marvelous new world, which he named Hispañola. El Día marks of the birth of the international Hispanic community whose cultural influence now spreads to the corners of the earth.

Equally important for many is the Feria del Pilar. According to early church tradition, the apostle James was preaching the gospel in the Roman province of Hispania, in what was then the pagan land of Caesaraugusta (now Zaragoza). On January 2, 40 A.D., in the earliest days after the Resurrection, the apostle James was praying with some of his disciples by the banks of the Ebro River, when he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary appearing before him atop a pillar.

She assured James that his efforts would not be in vain, for the faith of the people would become as strong as the pillar on which she was standing. For the Spanish Christians she left the symbolic pillar on which was mounted a wooden image of her. To this day it can be seen in a special chapel in the Zaragoza basilica.

When reading about Pilar, many may question whether the Virgin really left behind that statue. Furthermore, Columbus surely had a shadowy side and in fact this visionary explorer ended up in chains! If the arrival of the Spaniards in America was an occasion of unmitigated joy, it was also a period of suffering for the native people. 

We are all children of a materialistic age in which reality is often seen as concrete and scientific. We allow little room for the spiritual or heroic traditions which form a people’s identity. I guess the closest thing we have to this kind of reality is the story of Washington and the cherry tree. Nevertheless the melding of folk and religious traditions is important and marking the extraordinary accomplishments of Columbus is a perfectly appropriate way to celebrate the Hispanic world, and the interchange of cultures, which enriches all of our lives. 

The most appealing event for Ruth and me on October 12th is the offering of flowers, Ofrenda de Flores, to the Virgin. As the day draws near, the roads leading to Zaragoza swell with hundreds of villagers who walk toward to the Basilica Plaza of Our Lady of the Pilar, with their arms filled with flowers to lay at the feet of the Virgin. Thanks to the bouquets brought by the faithful, Mary has an enormous cloak made of thousands of flowers brought in from the countryside.

During the final day we find a convenient curbside place along the parade route and mingle with the crowd of excited children. Many are with their mothers and fathers, grandparents or neighbors and are dressed in traditional clothes of Aragón. There are beautiful young ladies dressed in brightly polka dotted 'flamenco' feria dresses, or adorned with splendid lace mantillas and shawls.

It is such a happy occasion. Hundreds of delegations of villagers from all over Spain dance in the streets in their festive traditional clothing. There will be some pilgrims processing from as far away as Andalucía, where gracefully swirling ladies dressed in brightly colored feria dresses informally dance the flamenco-inspired Sevillana. Then there are others from as far west as Galicia and Asturias with their marching bagpipers playing ancient Celtic tunes. As countless delegations and pilgrims bring their beautiful floral offerings, a towering pyramid of flowers mounts crowned by the comparatively diminutive image of the Virgin at the top.

The majority of the participants are from the mountain villages of Aragón, with some from the Basque Country and the Pyrenees. Many are processing under the banner of a local parish, brotherhood or civic organization. As the groups pass by they are often dancing folk dances. We particularly enjoy seeing young and old dancing the jota – a genre of music and dance known throughout Spain.

The jota is the best-known expression of Aragonese folklore where it originated, dating as far back as the 18th century. Due to the complexities of the dance steps and manner of singing, the jota has evolved, but the most pure forms of the jota can still be found in Calanda, Alcañiz, Albacete and Zaragoza. 

'Fiestas del Pilar' is an extravagant carnival attended by thousands on holiday and culminates with an evening of fireworks reflected in the broad Ebro River that runs through town. The devotional content is less important for the majority – as is the case of the famous Carnaval de Cádiz. The revelers enjoy the amusing procession of huge papier-mâché giants and big heads (gigantes y cabezudos) as they randomly mingle with the crowds to the delight of young and old alike. There are bands, dances, concerts, theatre and, of course, the inevitable ritual of the 'running of the bulls' takes place in the bullring where the young and daring humans encounter young and feisty bulls. 

It is hard to remain a stranger for long in this jovial atmosphere where each night the tapas bars are jammed with revelers. Throughout the typical day of the traditional Spaniard there are designated opportunities to eat together – not the least of which is the daily ritual of meeting old friends at the tapas bars. Without a doubt, the people of Spain enjoy their food and companionship.

I like to find opportunities where I can place aside the skepticism that seems to saturate our age and everyday discourse. It is so much healthier to embrace life as it unfolds among families, friends and the community. There is a wonderful book, recently published by author Michael Peremiti, who took his family for an extended stay in a rural village in Castilla-León for much the same reason. It is called The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese. I think some of you might enjoy it as much as I did. Indeed, this is why our family chooses to revisit an older culture, to be refreshed by seeing things from a different perspective. Maybe this is how you feel too.