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Spain's 'National Festival': A public holiday with a chequered past and a topical present
HOPEFULLY, you'll have realised today (Friday) is a national public holiday before going out shopping and finding everywhere closed – although if you're in Catalunya, you'll probably still be able to pick up the weekly groceries without any problems.
Historically called Día de la Hispanidad, or 'Hispanic Day', and now more often referred to as the Fiesta Nacional de España ('National Festival of Spain'), the countrywide day off work has had its fair share of controversy as well as celebration.
In Aragón, as it coincides with the saint's day for the Virgen del Pilar – which is why you'll often see it referred to as the Puente del Pilar or 'Pilar Bank Holiday Weekend' – residents in the tongue-shaped region which stretches from the Pyrénées to about a third of the way down the mainland to the east of the centre will normally speak of October 12 in these terms, escaping any concerns about political correctness.
For the rest of the country, however, it's mainly just treated as a bonus day off to break up the working month – except by residents in and visitors to Madrid, who get to enjoy the pomp of a full military parade with paratroopers and aerobatics, as well as a close-up glimpse of the King and Queen.
Brave new world
It is said to be October 12 when, in the year 1492, Christopher Columbus' Crown-funded voyage from Cádiz ended on dry land, reputedly in what is now Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic.
Although Colombus – or 'Cristóbal Colón', his original, untranslated name – paved the way for Europe's colonisation of the Americas, he did not realise he had found an entirely new continent, believing himself to be in India. It was the Florentine Amerigo Vespucio who is credited with being the first European to realise this huge land mass was nowhere that had appeared on a map before, and who gave this new world his name after touring the entire coast of its southern half in the early 16th century.
Whilst October 12 did not become a national holiday in Spain until well into the 20th century, records exist of a one-off celebration to mark the anniversary of Columbus' discovery, organised by Queen Consort María Cristina, widow of King Alfonso XII.
This was in 1892, when Spain had lost all its colonies bar Cuba and the Philippines.
But October 12 did not start to become a regular national holiday until 1913, when government minister Faustino Rodríguez-San Pedro started calling it the 'Festival of the Spanish Race', which sought to encompass persons of Hispanic origin on either side of the pond; King Alfonso XIII then promoted it as an annual event exactly a century ago.
The public holiday was renamed by the intellectual Ramiro de Maeztu in 1935, when he called it 'Hispanic Day' or, more literally, 'Day of Hispanity' – a word which fell into disuse in the first half of the century.
Pronouncing a speech about the discovery and colonisation of the Americas, Maetzu said October 12 should be a commemoration of everyone with Spanish roots, 'not just in Spain or the Americas', but 'wherever in the world communities of Spaniards have joined together to raise a toast to their race'.
October 12 did not become an official annual holiday across the country until 1958, via presidential decree.
What's in a name?
Socialist president Felipe González – Spain's longest-reigning post-dictatorship leader and the driving force behind the country's joining the European Union – reinterpreted the meaning of the October 12 fiesta in a law passed in 1987: that of its being a celebration of the country's history and unity, cultural and political diversity and the 'integration of all the Kingdoms of Spain under one monarchy', as well as the start of an intense campaign to promote the Spanish language and culture beyond European borders.
González's law text also changed the name of the public holiday to 'National Festival of Spain'.
The reworking of both name and meaning was in response to a growing awareness that colonialism is nothing to celebrate – the violence, usurpation of land, enforcing of religious order, language and laws on a centuries-old society and exploiting them and their territory for personal wealth would be unthinkable in today's world, and with Spain being home to hundreds of thousands of Latin American citizens – many of them now fourth-generation – a festival marking the start of their long and bloodthirsty colonisation has been a thorny subject for some time.
Celebrating the discovery of the Americas is perhaps less controversial, and if the October 12 public holiday had always been named 'Americas Day' or 'New World Discovery Day', it is unlikely to have incensed so many members of society.
The root of the matter
Catalunya, with its separatist movement still a red-hot topic and far from being dead in the water, not only objects to the 'celebration of colonisation' but also to the fact that October 12 is a 'celebration of Spain and all things Spanish' – a festival honouring the country many (although certainly not all) Catalunya residents want to break away from.
To this end, the government of Catalunya has, once again, announced all its shops will be open and everyone will be at work – even Parliament and local authorities – today, as it considers October 12 to be 'just another day on the calendar'.
Meanwhile, though, former Spanish colonies will be taking the day off work and holding parades and parties in the street.
México has marked October 12 as a national holiday since 1929 – long after its Independence Day festival was created – and Chile has been celebrating it since 1939, since both consider it a day to honour their Spanish roots, something they are proud of.
And despite its past associations, October 12 is largely now considered to be Spain's answer to 'Australia Day', or simply a public holiday to show national pride and to drink to all things Spanish.
Additionally, and curiously, anyone named María de Guadalupe will get another birthday today: Spaniards and Latin Americans, Catholics or not, celebrate their 'saint's day', or Santo, often with parties and gifts; the day of the year dedicated to the saint with whom they share a name is always a little bit special.
The Virgin of Guadalupe was symbolically 'crowned' as Hispaniarum Regina, or 'Queen of Hispanity', by Cardinal Pedro Segura in 1928 in the presence of King Alfonso XIII, and has officially been the patron saint of this public holiday for the last 90 years.
As fiestas go, October 12 is fairly low-key: unlike Easter, the Moors and Christians, the Fallas in Valencia in March, or town patron saint festivals, this is not one where the streets are filled with colourful processions in traditional folk costume with marching bands, nor late-night open-air dinners with DJs, live bands and open bars.
Some towns may hold a small, fleeting parade, but the main event is a military parade starting from Madrid's Plaza de Lima, where all the emergency services, the forces and the police march in uniform in a similar manner to those in the UK and France on November 11.
King Felipe VI will be present with his wife, Queen Letizia and daughters, Princess Leonor, who will be 13 at the end of the month, and the Infanta Sofía, 11 – Spain's reigning monarch is automatically the highest-ranking official in the national military, meaning Felipe VI holds this ranking and Leonor also will when she succeeds her father to the throne.
Brass bands will play, a giant Spanish flag unfolded, and a parachuting display and air show will take place.
If you're in Madrid and have seen this article in time for the start, at 11.00, the nearest metro station is Chamartín, and the parade finishes at 13.00 in the Plaza San Juan de la Cruz, near Cuatro Caminos metro station.
En route, they will cover the northern part of Madrid's main business district, the Paseo de la Castellana, and pass Real Madrid CF's Santiago Bernabéu stadium.
If you want to catch the air show and parachutes, these are at the beginning in the Plaza de Lima.
Photograph of the Guardia Civil's horseback parade along Madrid's Paseo del Prado: Carlos Teixidor Cadenas/Wikimedia Commons
Illustration of Colombus' landing on October 12, 1492: L. Prang & Co, Boston/Wikimedia Commons
Air show photograph: Nils van der Burg/Wikimedia Commons
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