Fairs and Spooks in Spain in November
Fairs, especially cattle fairs, are held almost everywhere in Spain at this time of the year. There is a chestnut fiesta in Orense, Galicia, and roast chestnuts are sold in the streets from north to south. Local romerias continue to be held in the south where the weather is still warm enough for picnics. One of the end-of-the-year ‘fire rites’ is observed on 30 November at Nava del Rey in the province of Valladolid in honour of Our Lady of the Conception where a procession is held between bonfires, the participants holding lighted torches called pegotes.
Spain is not a ‘spooky’ country. They do not possess many ghosts and one rarely hears of haunted houses. However, the age-old tradition according to which the spirits of the dead revisit the earth towards the end of the year is reflected in two ways: first the great importance attached to All Soul’s day on 2 November when it is customary to take flowers and garlands to the cemetery and in some places to burn oil lamps all night upon the graves and, secondly, in the traditional performances during November of Jose Zorilla’s classical play about Don Juan, a tradition almost as deeply anchored as English Christmas pantomimes.
The connection between Don Juan and spooks is twofold: not only because of the apparition to Don Juan of the ghosts of the Captain and of his daughter, Dona Ines, but also because of his appearing, and being invited, to a banquet. This theme has been lifted by the playwright — perhaps unconsciously — from the ancient belief in the communion of the dead and the living during a special meal, accompanied by petitions on the part of the living and the idea that the dead would bring them good luck, fecundity of crops and families, through the mysterious powers they were supposed to acquire in the other world.
In the more sophisticated case of Don Juan in Zorrilla’s play the rake and profligate is guided to repentance and salvation through the ghosts.
The play consists of seven scenes and is given by national and local companies throughout Spain(in Catalonia they have also resurrected a medieval mystery play The Dance of Death which is performed in November). The first scene represents a tavern and the meeting between the rivals Don Juan and Don Mejia who compare rakes’ notes after a year’s wanderings. Don Juan wins with a total of thirty-two antagonists killed in duels and seventy-six amorous conquests. But his rival will not be content to award him laurels until he has seduced his own bride to be, and a novice: Dona Ines. Then follow the well-known seduction scenes. Dona Ines, carried away by Don Juan’s eloquence, faints from emotion and is borne offstage. She wakes up in his country house beside the Guadalquivir and is told by the crone who acts as a go-between that she has been removed from the convent because of a fire. The furious father, Captain Centellas, appears; Don Juan declares that Dona Ines could make a good man of him if he married her but her father will hear none of it. The provoked Don Juan, who has a quick temper, kills the father and his rival Don Mejia and flees the country. Dona Ines dies of grief and shame.
Next: return of Don Juan to a lugubrious scene; the pantheon of his victims’ tombs in a garden. Here the ghosts of the Captain and of Dona Ines make their first appearance but Don Juan, like a good Spaniard, is sceptical about these spooks. He issues his famous invitation to the Captain to dine with him and his boon companions that night. Then follows the supper scene, the ghostly knocking at the door, the Captain’s appearance in his shroud, Don Juan’s last challenge to his companions whom he believes are guilty of a practical joke. Final scene before the tombs in the garden: Don Juan sees his own funeral, his hand is clasped by the Captain’s ghostly one, his other hand is held by the ghost of Dona Ines. Last minute repentance, only just in time, all is well, his soul will be saved.
Tales of Seduction
The more literal ‘invitation to the dead’ to assist at a meal is extended to the souls of the departed at the fiesta of San Andres de Teixido in the month of September, as we have already seen in Unusual Spanish Fiestas, but St Andrew’s feast day is in November and is celebrated then by most localities in Spain where he is venerated. No doubt the Galician celebration has been displaced in time for practical climatic reasons as it would be much too bleak to repair to the chapel by the sea so late in the year.
In the province of Zamora, especially in the village of Benavente, women bake special bread ‘for the souls’ in November, just as we in Britain used to bake ‘soul cakes’.
In the month of November, either associated with All Souls’ day on the 2nd, or with a patron saint as is the case in the province of Orense where it is celebrated on 11 November, feast day of St Martin of Tours, patron of the diocese, the Galicians hold fiestas called o magosto: communal picnics, consisting chiefly of chestnuts which ripen at this time of the year. The fiesta is held either at home, when it is accompanied by stews and hot pies, or out in the country, weather permitting, when the main dish is composed of rice. The fire is the important thing, into which the chestnuts are poked until they burst open. Boys and girls run after each other blackening their faces with the smoky exterior of the chestnuts. Bellringers who are obliged to spend the entire day of 2 November on duty, tolling the bells for the souls of the dead, celebrate the magosto up in the belfry.
Bonfires, blackened faces, a communal meal, all point to traditional ceremonies in honour of the dead believed to return to earth at the end of the year.
In the Basque country, where the cult of the dead is particularly developed, a curious custom can be observed in many villages almost every Sunday of the year, but particularly so in November on All Souls’ day. This is the placing of argizaiolas by the womenfolk, usually after High Mass, on the sepultures of their dead in the churches. Nowadays people are not buried in church but the old family resting-place is traditionally handed down and the women unfailingly make a beeline for the spot.
The argizaiola is a wooden holder, often very attractively carved, round which wax tapers are wound and lighted before they are placed on slab. It is still customary for newly married couples, when they return to the village from their honeymoon, to light an argizaiola on the family tomb, a task always performed by the new bride.
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