Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain:
El Puente de la Constitución.



Early December is one of the times of year in the Spanish calendar when the word 'puente' or bridge acquires a special significance. For big city dwellers it's a signal to jump into the car and, whatever the weather, head for the coast, the country, the mountains, anywhere that's not big city. Because this 'puente' is the time when Spaniards bridge the gap between a national holiday and a weekend by taking the day or days in between off work, rather as we do in the UK with bank holidays.

The longest 'puente' in the Spanish calendar is the one that spans two national holidays on the 6th and 8th of December. The first of these dates is a reminder of recent history. As part of the process of the democritisation of Spain following Franco's death in 1975, a new constitution was drawn up and presented for referendum. On the 6th December 1978, it received a vote in favour of 88%, although only a little under 59% of the electorate actually voted. Since then, the day has been a national holiday.

The new constitution officially recognized various fundamental rights, as well as introducing far-reaching measures for devolving central power to 'autonomous communities'. These acquired self-government via regional parliaments, court systems and statutes of autonomy. Since then, further powers have been added, and now each autonomous community can legislate regarding its own education and health policies.
The new constitution has only been altered once since it was ratified, and that was following the signing of the Maastricht treaty in February 1992. It then became possible for nationals of all EEC states to vote, and stand for office in, local municipal elections.

The second date of the 'puente', the 8th of December, is the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception, 'La Inmaculada Concepción'. A common fallacy is that the name refers to the conception of Jesus in his mother's womb. It in fact refers to an article of faith in the Catholic Church stating that, by a special dispensation from God, the Blessed Virgin Mary was free of original sin from the moment she was conceived. This was proclaimed as dogma by Pope Pius IX on the 8th December, 1854.

immaculadaWhat was the dogma based upon? As with several other doctrines, it comes from close textual analysis of the Bible, backed up by theological debate, rather than any explicit statement to be found in the Bible. Various sections of Genesis, Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus and the Song of Songs are used to illustrate the dogma. Basically they portray the Virgin Mary as a second Eve, the Mother of the Redeemer, and the enemy of the serpent.
Only a continuous state of grace could adequately explain this enmity between Mary and Satan, and the Angel Gabriel seems to confirm this when he hails her as 'full of grace', a slightly watered-down translation of the original Greek meaning that she was possessed of a 'singular abundance of grace'. Such a state, it was argued, could only be a manifestation of a supernatural state of the soul in union with God.

Needless to say, there have been dissenting voices over the centuries, among them St Thomas Aquinas, but useful confirmation of the dogma came just four years after Pope Pius's declaration, when the Virgin Mary started to appear at the grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes. During her sixteenth apparition she finally revealed to Bernadette, 'I am the Immaculate Conception'. The idea is now firmly established, and anybody you know called Inmaculada, Inma, Concepción, Concha, Conchi or Conchita will celebrate their 'onomástico' or name day on the 8th December.

choirAn interesting celebration of the day takes place in Seville, where the Virgin is much revered. On the afternoon of the 8th, and for the following week, the Seises, a small group of specially-trained choirboys, whose history dates back centuries, will sing and dance in their traditional costume before the enormous retablo in the Cathedral. At the same time, over in the wine-growing regions of Murcia, in the town of Yecla, the feast is celebrated in deafening fashion, by hundreds of shots, fired for hours on end, from old-fashioned handguns called arquebuses. It has been a fiesta since 1692 and commemorates a great, bloodless victory over the invading French troops and the people's gratitude to the Virgin for her hand in the triumph.


conventMeanwhile, if you should be passing one of the many convents around Andalucía, it's worth poking your head in to see if the nuns there sell pastries or cakes, particularly at this time of year when such sweetmeats are very popular Christmas fare. If you take the plunge and decide to buy some, you should know that the nuns, whether face to face or invisible behind the revolving drum called a 'torno' which is used for payment and delivery of the goodies, will greet you by saying 'Ave María Purísima', 'Hail Mary the Most Pure'.
To which you should respond, 'Sin pecado concebida', 'conceived without sin', thus playing your small part in the tradition we remember at this time of year, as well as displaying exemplary manners.


You can listen to the audio clip by Nick Butcher below.