Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at Many Lands: Spain by Edith A. Browne
Peeps at Many Lands: Spain by  Edith A. Browne

High Days and Holidays (continued)

Among local holidays celebrated by every city, town, and village in honour of its patron saint, the Day of San Isidro of Madrid is particularly remarkable for its festivities.

San Isidro was a pious ploughboy of Castile, who loved the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. He attended the ancient church of San Andres in Madrid, and there he was buried in 1130, leaving behind him at his death a reputation for being a very holy man, whose prayers had never failed to bring rain to the city in times of drought. When, in 1232, Madrid was suffering from the ill effects of a very dry season, the people prayed to San Isidro to intercede for them, and, according to an old chronicle, his body, borne over the parching land, saved the crops from destruction beneath the scorching sun by bringing floods of rain, which nearly drowned the bearers." Thereupon Madrid adopted her benefactor as her patron saint. San Isidro's body was removed to the Church of San Isidro, Madrid, in 1769, and there it still rests, together with the remains of his equally revered wife, Santa Maria de la Cabeza; but the site of his first burial-place at San Andres is still kept sacred to his memory, and the church has a curious wooden effigy of him in quaint costume.

On San Isidro's Day, May 15, Madrid does honour to her patron saint, and thoroughly enjoys herself in upholding the custom. There is a procession through the principal streets to the Hermitage of San Isidro, which is built over a miraculous well; and the route seems to be the centre of a big fair, whose extensive show-ground is replete with every mirth-provoking medium, and thronged with people bent on enjoying all the fun. Crowds congregate around motley collections of good things to eat, bits of finery, and sacred souvenirs, displayed in booths, on stalls, and on trays slung by gay ribbons round old and young necks. There are merry-go-rounds, side-shows, tents for dancing, and many instrumental devices for making those shrill noises without which no gathering of the masses seems able to be happy and content. But allied with all these worldly ingredients of fun and frivolity there is a religious element, which makes San Isidro Day's celebrations in Spain closely akin to the miraculous-cure pilgrimages at Lourdes, in the Pyrenees, and at the island of Tenos, in Greece. A very brisk trade is done in little jars for the transportation of water from the well at the Hermitage, for this holy liquid is believed to be endowed with healing properties. Among other tokens for sale in direct connection with the principal show—the procession—are pictures of the patron saint, designed for mural decoration, or set in some way for personal adornment; glass piglets, in honour of St. Isidro's lowly calling; pig bells, which, after they have been blessed, are considered to be a talisman against lightning; and glass whistles in the disguise of roses, which can be worn in the buttonhole, but, better still, can be used to make a noise in imitation of the call with which San Isidro used to entice the pigs under his care to come to him.

Among the local fairs that are of a purely worldly nature, that held at Seville about the middle of April is the most famous. But the annual fair at the smallest village is equally a sight not to be missed; indeed, it has the distinction of concentrated local character, whereas the great fair at Seville is more of a national fete. At fair-time all the inhabitants of a village are a family party of merry-makers: the squire is "hail-fellow-well-met "with the labourers on his estate, the squire's wife romps with the boy and girl peasants, the squire's son plays cavalier to the village beauty. Every-one is adorned in the best bibs and tuckers of local costume; everywhere is heard the music of castanets and guitars, bidding the merry-makers trip the light fantastic toe in some local form of dance. By day the pedlars constitute one of the most attractive sights of the fair: those who trade in spindles and distaffs carry their wares tied round their waists; some, who sell sweetmeats, fruit, needles and cottons, and suchlike oddments, display their goods on flower-bedecked trays slung round the neck by bright ribbons; and some general dealers balance on their heads a pyramid of hats for stall. At night, illuminations and fireworks con-tribute largely to the fun of the fair.

The festivals which are constantly affecting a small section of Spanish society here, there, and everywhere throughout the land, are known as name-days. These celebrations are nearly related to our birthday festivities, and, like them, only concern one member of a family in particular, and relatives and friends in general. Every Spaniard is named after a saint, and the special day dedicated by the Church to the memory of his patron saint is name-day for him. Each member of a family, from the oldest to the youngest, is the hero or heroine of an intimate circle on his or her own name-day, and mother's name-day in a Spanish home is of the same special importance as is mother's birthday in an English home. Flowers, fruits, and sweets are the leading varieties of presents. The family in which the name-day occurs frequently gives a tertulia—an evening reception of an informal nature: people drop in to offer congratulations and express good wishes, and there is a considerable amount of talking, some music, dancing, and perhaps a game of whist. Only the lightest of refreshments are served at tertulias, which are not peculiar to name-day celebrations, but are a very usual medium of social intercourse; water is often the only beverage handed round.

There is one Spanish festival of particular interest to the women. This is San Juan's Day, June 13, when Cupid is cajoled and propitiated. The Spanish girl who is anxious for a sweetheart steals out in the early morning to bathe her face in the waters of a fountain, and the Spanish girl who already has a lover goes through the same ceremony to insure his constancy. Heart-shaped cakes are another of the love-customs of this day, and rosemary and verbena are burned as offerings to the god of love.

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