25 Oct, 2007 @ 14:39
5 mins read

Saints and souls and modern day ghouls


For Theresa O’Shea, Halloween in Spain is a time for visiting departed loved ones and eating roasted chestnuts

PUMPKIN sales in Spain at the end of October have rocketed in the last few years. Few discos and pubs fail to put on a Halloween theme night. The children dress up as witches at school. Eighteen years ago when I came to Spain, no-one had heard of Halloween. Endless teen terror flicks and American TV shows soon changed that. Now, at least among young people, Halloween looks set to challenge the traditional festivals of El Día de Todos los Santos (All Saints’ Day) and El Día de los Difuntos (All Souls’ Day).
However, if you know where to go and what to look for, you will find plenty of evidence that Hollywood has not won the battle yet.

Pagan origins

Hallow-tide festivals go back to the Celtic New Year festival of Samhein on November 1, which marked the beginning of winter. People believed that on the eve of Samhein the dead returned from the grave in search of a body-squat for the year ahead. To scare the spirits off, they dressed up in ghoulish costumes, leapt over bonfires, and placed grotesque hollowed-out turnips on windowsills.

In an attempt to stamp out these pagan practices, around 835AD Pope Gregory IV shifted All Saints Day – the date when all known and unknown saints are honoured – from May 13 to November 1. A hundred years later, the addition of All Souls’ Day to the Church calendar knotted things up nicely. On November 1 you prayed for saintly souls in heaven, while the day after you prayed, and gave alms, for those who had not quite atoned for their earthly sins and were stuck in purgatory.

Throughout Europe people gathered around special Hallows fires: in Britain these were lit on hills or in “purgatory fields,” while in Spain the fires blazed in churchyards, acting as beacons to guide the limbo-breaking souls on their way home. Church bells also rang out to give any short-sighted spirits a little extra help, and the nightshift bell-ringers were rewarded with sweet wine and chestnuts roasted on the churchyard fires.

Purgatory and Prayer

A form of “souling” also seems to have existed all over Europe. Since ancient times families had baked special cakes as offerings to feed and appease the returning spirits. Then when Christianity took root, giving away soul-cakes became another way of helping loved ones out of limbo. Children and beggars went from house to house to sing and beg for cakes and alms. The more goodies you gave away and the more prayers the soulers said, the more chances your loved ones had of being beamed up to heaven.

But what if purgatory did not exist? In the late Middle Ages huge theological debates took place questioning whether or not you could pray, or indeed pay, the dead into heaven. The Protestants said no and cut out the middleman. After the Reformation, therefore, in countries such as England, the religious aspects of Hallowtide were forgotten, while in Catholic countries such as France, Poland and Spain, All Saints’ and All Souls’ traditions became more important.
November 1 is a public holiday in Spain and until recently so was November 2. Nowadays, the two festivals are celebrated as one, in a potpourri of pagan and Catholic practices. Essentially, it is a time of remembrance of the dead – as well as an excuse to indulge in seasonal dulces (sweet things).

Flowers and Cemeteries

If Christmas is the one day of the year that many people attend church, November 1 is the one day a year many set foot in a graveyard. According to newspaper El Mundo, in 2001 in Madrid alone one million people visited one of the city’s 22 cemeteries. Traffic jams and queues form on the way as an endless stream of visitors turn up to place flowers, wreaths and candles on tombs and niches. The Traffic Police are everywhere and special buses are laid on to cope with the floral frenzy.

For those who have come in a hurry, flower stalls line the entrances to the cemeteries, and florists do more business than at any other time of the year, including Mothers’ Day and Valentines’ Day. Chrysanthemums, yellow and white, are the traditional choice, while carnations, gladioli and roses are other popular alternatives. Days beforehand, early birds spruce-up their family graves, while caretakers and gardeners give the whole place a good autumn-cleaning.
At some cemeteries there are even special “tomb-shine” boys, who offer their cleaning services for a small fee. Meanwhile, the authorities lay on buckets and, most importantly, stepladders (the Spanish bury their dead upwards in white-walled niches, like mini blocks of flats).

Nowadays, it is mostly the older generation who pay their public respects to the dead, but most of my Spanish friends and family remember accompanying their mothers to the cemetery when they were younger: meeting friends, playing among the tombs and reading the inscriptions. All in all, it is a social event, albeit a serious one. In Galicia, people picnic among the tombs on empanada – a sort of flat Cornish pasty, filled with tuna or chicken cooked in a tomato and onion sauce.

The cemetery gates close around 8pm, leaving the candlelit shrines to the departed. Years ago, the candles would burn all night long to light the way of the dead en route to the other world. In some areas of Alicante people still leave lighted candles on the windowsill for the same reason. Meanwhile, in parts of Castilla it is believed that the dead rise from the tombs at night and harass the living who dare venture out. And on the evening of November 2 in Zamora, the Cofradía of Los Ánimas (Brotherhood of the Lost Souls) leads a procession through the cemetery of San Atilano. Special prayers and rosaries are said, followed by a candlelit choral requiem.

Soul food

Home is undoubtedly the safest place to enjoy the gastronomic aspect of Todos los Santos.
Apart from florists and candle-makers, bakeries do a roaring trade. Huesos de Santos (tube-shaped marzipan “bones” filled with sweetened egg yolk) and buñuelos (fried baby donuts oozing with a chocolatey, custardy gunk) are popular all over Spain. Overdoing it is encouraged: for every buñuelo you eat you rescue a soul from purgatory, while partaking of a holy bone shows you are not afraid of the dead. Around 250,000 kilos of these “soul cakes” are sold in Madrid bakeries every year.

There are plenty of regional specialities too, like panallets (pine nut-covered marzipan cakes) in Catalunya, arrope (grape syrup) in Murcia, and roasted chestnuts and yams throughout the North of Spain. The traditional All Saints Day dish in Jaen is gachas, a sort of flour and water gruel sweetened with milk and honey or sugar. Children in some villages apparently still have fun with the leftovers, gluing up key holes to keep out wandering souls.

Chestnut feasts

It is in the North of Spain that the biggest All Saints’ Day celebrations are held, with the festival of the Castañada – the feast of the roasted chestnut. In Galicia it’s called a Magosto; in the Basque Country, a Kastañarre Eguna; in Asturias, an Amagüestu; and in Catalunya, a Castanyada.
Castañadas are not as widespread as they once were, but it is still typical for people to enjoy a special dinner at home on the evening of October 31. This is followed by roasted chestnuts, festive cakes and dried fruits, all washed down with sweet wine. Now just a social occasion, once upon a time people set an extra place at the table to pacify any lost hungry soul. Older family members told spooky stories, and greedy children were warned not to eat all the chestnuts or else the spirits would tug at their feet while they slept.
Chestnuts last forever: they symbolise the soul. And until the introduction of corn and the potato in the 16th and 17th centuries, chestnut bread was a staple in the North of Spain, an important part of the diet until even 50 years ago. Not surprisingly, the castañera, or chestnut seller, forms a part of the region’s folklore and in schools it is typical for one child to dress up as the castañera or for a “real” headscarfed castañera to visit and tell traditional stories.

Whether or not castañadas are celebrated where you live, this is the time of year all over Spain when chesnut sellers set up their stalls in the streets. The sweet smell of roasting chestnuts on a crisp autumnal night is a comforting reminder that some things never change. Who needs Halloween?

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