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Stories About Spain

Celebrating in Spain

Written by: Don Harris

dancers in traditional dress in ZaragozaIf 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.
family in traditional dress
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.
statue of the Virgin Mary with a cloak made of flowers
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.
drummers parading in traditional dress
'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.

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"It all sounds wonderful. Your descriptions, Don, make us feel as if we were there. Enjoy yourselves, we are a enjoying our Thanksgiving with our children & families in Ontario. "
October 2013

"Hola Barry & Thelma - fellow world travelers. We have not have a lot of contact since our China trip together so it is good to be back in contact. Any time you want to revisit our beloved Spain in depth let us know. We just returned from our trip with Ruth and her two sisters - as usual it was remarkable for the warmth of the Spanish people."

"Zaragoza was one of my very first experiences of Spain back in the 1990s. A friend of mine at church paid for me to travel there with him as his interpreter to negotiate some business contracts. I even have a souvenir Nuestra Señora del Pilar in my dining room. The bridge across the Ebro downstream from the Catedral is ancient! And I love that you can go down below the current plaza level and walk Roman streets. Near the north end of the main plaza is an Irish pub in a basement with the restroom signs in Gaelic."
October 2013

"Dear Lon, What great memories! As you know we just returned from Zaragoza. The number of people thronging the Pilar festivities was amazing. There seemed to be two or three times the number of people we experienced five years ago. A great addition was the row of stalls along the Ebro River with all sorts of traditional cooking -- homemade pastries, rustic bread, iberico secreto chops sizzling on the grill. It was fun to return."

"Thank you both for the article and pictures on your ventures in Zaragoza!!! Of all my visits when I lived in Madrid, I missed Sevilla and Zaragoza... Now I find out that I have Spanish Blood, Soy un poco Espanola! Ay que bueno! Me gusta, me gusta! Thank you for the stories, food and bringing it closer to us in the USA, it's been like celebrating from my old patio in Madrid!

Ana-Querida (Annie-Dear)"
October 2013

"Dear Ana - Querida -- What a nice name you have. Do return to Spain. The roads are great, the driving is sensible. Just grab a rental car at the airport and go. I do think Sevilla should be on your list -- and don't forget the sherry towns just an hour away. One of my very favorite places is the ancient port city of Cádiz. You can catch a ferry from the sherry town El Puerto de Santa María. The municipal market is astonishing -- aisles and aisles of all kinds of sea creatures from the deep! "

"Thank you for another insightful column. Yesterday I just finished reading "The Telling Room". It has some good insight into the character and culture of Castile. And it takes place in the small town of Guzman, just west of a town (Lerma) we recently visited. Our trip also included a visit to Logroño for the annual Fiesta. Like the celebration in Zaragoza that you wrote about, this is both a spiritual and a secular celebration. The Fiesta San Mateo goes back to the 12th century, and the Wine Harvest Festival was added in 1956. It is celebrated every September 21 (and days around it). It seemed to us that everyone and every family went out to celebrate, with children all dressed up and most adults wearing San Mateo neckerchiefs. Events included a special Mass in the cathedral, a parade of Gigantes (giant figures of persons), bands, and dozens of food tents featuring food products from all over Spain. People lined up to buy eggs with local red peppers, and lamb cooked over coals of burning grape vine cuttings (“Chuletas al sarmiento”). The cuttings were fired up right on the pavement of the main plaza, with smoke drifting all over the place.The highlight of the day was the parade of people dressed up in traditional outfits including a prince and princess of the day (“Vendimiadores”). Many of them carried baskets of grapes. They paraded to the big park and dropped the grapes into a large wooden vat on the stage, with tens of thousands of people looking on. Later, the grapes would be crushed, starting the process to turn them into wine. We felt privileged to be with this happy crowd."
October 2013

"I see you share my love for Spain. I just finished that fascinating book, The Telling Room. Clearly it resonated with you as well. You have provided a beautiful description of San Marco and the vendimia celebrations in Logroño. It was so tantalizing that I think Ruth and I will attend next year. It is around 21 September? Is there a special place you would recommend for us to stay? "

"Beautiful article about my home. All I can say is that I envy you!! My whole family is in Zaragoza right now, its where they live, and I haven't been able to see them in 4 years. Since 1997 when I moved to USA from Zaragoza, Spain, I've only been able to return twice for vacation and for very short lengths of time. I wish I could move back but it's impossible. Please enjoy the Fiestas for me and all the other Spaniards away from home. You are so lucky to be there right now! Besos y abrazos! "
October 2013

"Dear Ana, How nice to hear from you! Yes, Zaragoza is a magical place to visit especially around the time of the Pilar festivities. However there were throngs of people everywhere, more than you can imagine! Along the Ebro River were booths with all kinds of sweets, bread, meat. We also stopped by the place who makes our dark chocolate coated orange peels that we sell at La Tienda. Of course they were super. Eating lunch along the old plaza near the river was fun. Lots of students and cordial restauranteurs."

"Bravo! Beautiful article and true in every sense of the word. The love for family and tradition of the people of Spain is an inspiration to all. "
October 2013

"The interesting thing we recognized is how valuable the tradition of family ties and support within the extended family. Despite the economic crisis, which is very real, we saw no one homeless or out on the streets. Most of them are absorbed in their families without a second thought."

"Having lived in Spain for some fifty years, I can testify to the authenticity of your vision of Spain, its people, and its customs. Thank you for your wonderful articles."
October 2013

"Hola Zoe, Thanks for your words of encouragement. Where do you live in Madrid? My son Christopher and daughter in law Rian leave Wednesday with their brand new daughter for a three year tour in the American Embassy. That being said, I am sure Ruth and I will be in Madrid a lot more often -- maybe we could have a glass of fino together one of these days. "

"Yes - you're correct Don. I think many would find Spain to be very refreshing when viewing or experiencing the warmth and friendliness of the classic traditions. Mostly those of sharing the good things of life (Spain's beautiful sun & weather, amazing tapas & food & all those lively festivals w/in some beautiful, quaint & older provinces or towns). One of the best things about the Spaniards is that they know how to make anyone feel so welcomed and "right at home"! Thanks for a lovely written article. I hope that you and your wife really enjoy the remainder of your stay in Zaragoza, Spain!

Hasta pronto,

Isabel "Lee" Alder :) "
October 2013

"Ruth and I had a great time in Zaragoza as a part of a trip where we were introducing Spain to Ruth's two sisters and their husbands. They are world travelers but had never gone to Spain. They also were impressed with the warmth and hospitality of the Spanish people, and immediately understood our devotion to the traditional Spanish culture."

"Being in Zaragoza for eight years I still remember days and years which was so exciting for the people the sites or places and most of all the churches. Every where you go even though you are strangers to them, they will greet you, ask if you are contented and in regards to the fiesta of our Nuestra Sra. Del Pilar so miraculous. All over Spain I might say is that they come together to show how devoted to our lady. Los Manos which they call people from Zaragoza show me how to care, love and protect one another. For our lady of Nuestra Sra. Del Pilar I am a living proof of the miracles that were given to me while there. Happy dancing and singing just to show one how to celebrate Oct 12th. Procession on the evening with ladies, small children and man in their typical costumes, full of flowers for our saints. I love this country that is why I always visit as many times as I can. I love Zaragoza. (Viva Los Manos)"
October 2013

"It was equally moving this year in Zaragoza -- but many more people than ever before. Along the Ebro Riverside there were many wonderful; booths cooking bread, making roscones, and roasting jamón iberico over a bed of glowing coals. I am sure you were there in spirit! Don"

"Don, in answer to your questions, the Logrono fiesta's key day is always September 21, but celebrations surround that date. In 2014 it seems they last from Sept 20 (Saturday) to 27. http://www.larioja.com/san-mateo/ seems to be the official site. For accommodations, in addition to the usual travel guides like Frommer's, we found Maribel's Guides to Spain to be very helpful. The La Rioja guide is at http://maribelsguides.com/mg_larioja.pdf. Based on this advice we stayed at the Castillo de Collado in LaGuardia, a short drive from Logrono. We were delighted with our stay, and our hotel owner could not have been nicer or more helpful. It was perhaps the best place we stayed at on our trip. LaGuardia is also an interesting town to tour and visit, and close to interesting wineries."
November 2013

"Thank you very much for all of this information! Maybe we will go there in 2014. I was not aware of the Mairbel's Guide to Spain. I will check it out. Merry Christmas."

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dancers in traditional dress in ZaragozaSi quieren ustedes disfrutar de algo realmente singular, únanse a los zaragozanos cualquier 12 de octubre para participar en sus celebraciones conmemorativas de la Herencia Hispana: La Feria del Pilar y el Día de la Hispanidad.

No es inusual entre los españoles tener celebraciones espontáneas donde lo spiritual se funde con lo seglar formando una bonita armonía. Mientras ustedes leen esto, mi esposa Ruth y yo estamos en Zaragoza junto a multitud de españoles para tomar parte en las celebraciones del Día de la Hispanidad, recordando así el día en el que Cristóbal Colón y su tripulación se toparon con un maravilloso nuevo mundo, al que se denominó Española. Este día marca el nacimiento de la comunidad hispánica internacional, cuya influencia cultural se extiende ahora a todos los rincones de la tierra.

Igual de importante es para muchos la Feria del Pilar. Según la tradición de la iglesia primitiva, el apóstol Santiago estaba predicando el evangelio en la provincia romana de Hispania, en lo que por aquella época se conocía como la tierra pagana de Cesaraugusta (ahora Zaragoza). El dos de Enero del año 40, en los primeros días después de la Resurrección, el apóstol Santiago se encontraba rezando con algunos de sus discípulos a orillas del río Ebro, cuando se le apareció la Virgen María en lo alto de un pilar.

La Virgen le aseguró que sus esfuerzos no serían en vano y que la Fe de la gente sería tan fuerte como el pilar en el que ella se posaba. La Virgen dejó a aquellos cristianos españoles el pilar en el que luego se colocó una imagen suya de madera. Aún hoy en día, ese pilar puede verse en una de las capillas de la basílica de Zaragoza.
family in traditional dress
Muchas personas cuando leen sobre el origen de El Pilar puede llegar a cuestionarse si fue realmente la Virgen quien lo dejó ahí . Además, Colón tiene también su parte oscura, de hecho, este explorador visionario acabó en la cárcel. Si la llegada de los españoles a América fue un motivo de alegría sin igual, también fue un periodo de sufrimiento para los nativos.

Somos todos hijos de una era materialista en la que la realidad se ve a menudo como algo concreto y científico. Dejamos poco sitio a las tradiciones espirituales o heroicas que forman parte de la identidad de los pueblos. Supongo que lo más parecido que tenemos a esta clase de realidad es la historia de Washington y el cerezo. Sin embargo, la mezcla de tradiciones religiosas y populares es importante, y recordar los extraordinarios logros de Colón son una forma perfectamente apropiada de celebrar el mundo hispano y el intercambio de culturas que enriquece la vida de todos.

El acontecimiento del 12 de Octubre que nos resulta más atrayente a Ruth y a mi es la ofrenda floral a la Virgen. A medida que se acerca la fecha, los caminos que llevan a Zaragoza se llenan con cientos de personas procedentes de diferentes localidades que caminan hacia la plaza de la Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar con los brazos llenos de flores para dejarlas a los pies de la Virgen. Gracias a los ramos traídos por los creyentes, la Virgen tiene un manto hecho con miles de flores venidas del campo.
statue of the Virgin Mary with a cloak made of flowers
El ultimo día encontramos un hueco estratégico en el bordillo de alguna acera del camino procesional y nos mezclamos con una multitud de niños ilusionados. Muchos de ellos van junto a sus padres, abuelos y vecinos vistiendo el traje típico aragonés. Hay bellas señoritas vestidas con trajes de flamenca o ataviadas con esplendidas mantillas de encaje.

Es una ocasión realmente gozosa. Cientos de delegaciones procedentes de pueblos de toda España bailan en las calles vistiendo el traje típico de su zona. Hay peregrinos llegados de sitios tan lejanos como Andalucía, donde señoras con mucho salero que llevan coloridos trajes de feria de lunares se ponen a bailar sevillanas. También hay otros que llegan de puntos del oeste peninsular tan lejanos como Galicia y Asturias, y vienen con sus gaitas tocando antiguas melodías celtas. A medida que las innumerables delegaciones y peregrinos dejan sus hermosas ofrendas florales, va surgiendo una altísima pirámide de flores coronada por la comparativamente diminuta imagen de la Virgen en lo alto.

El núcleo de los participantes se compone de gente procedente de los pueblos de las montañas de Aragón, y algunos incluso venidos del País Vasco y de los Pirineos. Muchos procesionan bajo el estandarte de su parroquia local, hermandad o asociación. A medida que los grupos van pasando, van, muy a menudo, bailando bailes regionales. Nos gusta especialmente ver a los jóvenes y mayores bailar la jota, un género de música y de baile conocido en toda España.
drummers parading in traditional dress
La jota es la expresión del folklore aragonés mas conocida, pues fue allí donde se originó en una fecha que se remonta al siglo XVIII. Debido a la complejidad de los pasos de este baile y a su manera de cantarse, la jota ha evolucionado, pero las formas más puras de este género se siguen encontrando en Calanda, Alcañiz, Albacete y Zaragoza.

Las Fiestas del Pilar son una celebración extravagante a la que asisten miles de personas y que culmina con una noche de fuegos artificiales que se reflejan en el ancho rio Ebro que atraviesa la ciudad. La parte de devoción tiene menos importancia para la mayoría, como es el caso del famoso festival de Cádiz. Los fiesteros se divierten con el desfile de gigantes y cabezudos que se mezclan con la gente para disfrute de grandes y pequeños por igual. Hay bandas, bailes, conciertos, teatro y , por supuesto, el inevitable ritual de los encierros que tiene lugar en la plaza de toros donde los que son jóvenes y atrevidos se enfrenan a toros jóvenes y peleones.

Es difícil permanecer al margen durante mucho tiempo en esta atmósfera jovial en la que todas las noches los bares de tapas están a rebosar con gente que sale de fiesta. A lo largo del día de un español tradicional hay momentos dedicados a comer acompañado, siendo sin duda uno de ellos el ritual diario de quedar con los amigos en un bar de tapas. Ni que decir tiene que los españoles disfrutan de su comida y de su compañía.

Me gusta encontrar oportunidades en las que puedo dejar a un lado el escepticismo que parece estar saturando la época en la que vivimos y nuestro discurso diario. Es mucho más saludable abrazar la vida como viene , en familia, con amigos y con la comunidad. Hay un libro maravilloso recientemente publicado por un autor, Michael Peremiti, que se llevó a su familia a pasar una larga temporada a una localidad rural de Castilla León por esta misma razón. Se titula: La sala de cuentos: Una historia de amor, traición y venganza y el mayor trozo de queso del mundo. (The Telling Room, A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese.) Creo que muchos de ustedes disfrutarían de este libro tanto como yo lo hice. De hecho, esa es la razón por la que nuestra familia elige volver a visitar una cultura más antigua, para renovarse viendo las cosas desde una perspectiva diferente. Quizá también ustedes se sientan así.

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