Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain:
La Fiesta Nacional de España



La Fiesta Nacional de España- 12th October

In this, the last in this series of talks, it is perhaps fitting that three of the most significant figures in the story of Spain, of its culture and its beliefs, come together for a celebration of the national holiday that is the 12th October.

The first of the three is Christopher Columbus, known in Spanish as Cristóbal Colón. Everyone knows his story, of course, without perhaps being able to pin down the date of his arrival in the New World. Well, it was October 12th, 1492, the place the island of Guanahani, in the Bahamas, which Columbus renamed San Salvador. This momentous event was to lead to the conquest of vast territories for the Spanish crown, and the diffusion of Spanish culture and language throughout much of the continent.

As ever for the local population of these countries, their so called 'discovery' by people from elsewhere was a very mixed blessing. As has been the norm throughout history, those on the receiving end of the quest for empire did not have much say in the matter of their future, a future that was anyway cut short for many by the introduction of a variety of lethal diseases to which they had no immunity.

Spain's empire started to crumble in the nineteenth century, a result of local discontent and trouble at home with the Peninsular War. Along with it went the concept bearing the antequated name 'hispanidad', or 'Spanishness'which supposedly united the nations and peoples who shared Spanish culture and language with some common bond.

We have to go much further back in history to find the other figures in our story. It was the year 40AD, and the apostle James the Greater, son of Zebedee, was busy preaching and converting in the city of Caesaraugusta on the River Iber in the north-east of Hispania, now known as Aragón.

Over in Palestine, the Virgin Mary prayed to her Son for James's success in his mission. In response, Jesus sent her some angels who picked Mary up and flew her through the skies to the bank of the river, where she appeared to James. Her instructions to him were that, with a pillar of jasper that the angels had also brought with them, James was to start the construction of a temple, the first temple in the world dedicated to her. James did as he was told, and his church was eventually dedicated to the Virgin Mary on the 12th October. It contained the original pillar and a statue of 'la Virgen del Pilar' on its top.

Neither the original church nor the original statue survive, but a fine baroque basilica now stands by the river Ebro in Zaragoza, as they are now known, and the present statue of the Virgin and her pillar are much revered. Many Spanish girls are given the name María del Pilar (Pilar for short) in her honour, and not only did she become patron of Aragón but she was also adopted by the Civil Guard as their patron, having, it was believed, played an important part in several military campaigns.

James, meanwhile, became the subject of his own legend, finding lasting fame as Santiago, the slayer of Moors, and he, of course, has his own centre of pilgrimage, indeed a city named after him, Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia. His temple there, and Mary's in Zaragoza are the axes around which Spanish Catholicism revolves.

The idea of combining a commemoration of Columbus' great feat and the day of La Virgen del Pilar arose in the early twentieth century. Originally it was called 'el Día de la Raza' or 'Day of the Race' (the Spanish race, in other words). Some countries still call it that, but Spain changed it to 'el Día de la Hispanidad', and more recently to 'La Fiesta Nacional de España'. Elsewhere, it's known as 'el Día de Las Culturas', 'Discovery Day' or 'Columbus Day', but Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, has made his feelings on the subject clear by calling it the 'Day of Indigenous Resistance'.

The day is marked in Madrid by a large military parade and fly-past, with all the armed forces represented, in front of the royal family and various politicians. It's a symbolicaly fraught occasion that can often be tinged with controversy or drama. Up in Zaragoza, it's a less politically charged day, and thousands of people in traditional dress file past the Virgin to leave elaborate floral offerings as hommage. It is the culmination of their annual 'fiestas'and there is much dancing of the 'jota' to celebrate.

And at this time in Nerja the year has come full circle since I started these talks, and the town will once again be in the middle of its annual fair. I hope it will be a happy and enjoyable one for all.

      You can listen to the episode below.