ALL SAINTS DAY
Death is a gloomy fact of life, and sooner or later anyone who
settles in Spain for any length of time will have to face up
to the loss of someone here that they care about. We can learn
from the Spanish attitude to death, which is not to shy away
They respect their dead, and every year they take time
out to do so in a formal framework, with the feast day, on the
first of November, of All Saints, known here as 'El día
de Todos los Santos'.
It is perhaps the most moving festival
of the whole year. Like so many fiestas, it seems to fulfill
a basic human need, in this case to honour and remember the
people who have gone from our lives for ever.
do they go about this? It's extremely simple. Families descend en
masse on the local cemetary. They take with them armfuls of flowers,
which they use to decorate the front of the 'nichos' within which
their loved ones lie. 'Nichos' are the niches or recesses in the
walls of the cemetary where most people are buried. Soon, the whole
place becomes a mass of colour and fragrance. Amid all the bustle
of arranging the flowers, of fetching ladders or water, of discussing
how best to go about things, you see people stand quietly in prayer
or contemplation. Something about the occasion means that emotion
is never far from the surface. How could it not be, with so many
memories evoked by the names and dates on so many stones?
But what has this got to do with a Christian feast day celebrating
all the Saints? It's difficult to trace the origin with any certainty.
It seems that in the early centuries of Christianity there was a
feast in May in some places celebrating all the martyrs. This became
a more established festival in the year 609, when Pope Boniface
IV converted the Pantheon in Rome into a church honouring the Virgin
Mary and the martyrs. The feast day evolved into one celebrating
all the saints, and in the ninth century its present date of November
the first became established.
In Britain they called the day All Hallows, meaning all the holy
ones. The night before was All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. According
to an old celtic tradition, this was the last night of the year
and was the time when all the witches and wizards were about. The
rituals involved in that night found their way to the United States,
where they evolved into the supposedly light-hearted celebration
of all things ghoulish that we know today, and which is gradually
catching on with Spanish children.
The first of November has other resonances
that may explain why it was chosen to commemorate the dead. In many
places in the Mediterranean the date marked the end of the agricultural
year: the wine was made, the oil had been pressed from the olives,
the land was exhausted, bereft of life. The date also falls forty
days after the autumn equinox, (forty is a highly significant number
in biblical terms) and signals a time when the really bad weather
often sets in. It was a time for country people to settle their
debts, maybe go to agricultural fairs to buy stock or replace tools.
In the Valencian town of Cocentaina they still hold an important
horse fair on this day.
The Ancient Greeks believed that the underworld opened up at this
time and that good spirits were allowed to ascend to communicate
with their descendants. Which brings us neatly back to Spain, where
candles are lit in cemetaries on the night of the first of November
to light the way for visiting souls.
for food, the typical dishes for All Saints, such as baked sweet
potatoes or roast chestnuts, are starchy and calorific, good things
to set you up for the dark, cold
months ahead. Other nuts are used too: the new season's almonds
for Cataluña's delicious sweetmeats called panellets, and
almonds appear again in the marzipan paste used to make huesos de
santo, saint's bones, rather gruesomely shaped and sickly.
most touchingly symbolic of all are buñuelos de viento,
little airy morsels of fried
choux paste stuffed with pastry cream and very popular at this time.
symbolism is in the name, which translates as puffs of wind. The
Spanish words for soul, alma or ánima, both derive from a
Greek word meaning precisely that, a puff of wind, something to
dwell on if it's breezy on All Saints Day.
for buñuelos de viento here