"With antics and with fooleries, with shouting and with laughter,
They fill the streets of Burgos—and the Devil he comes after."
In Spain, the land of romance and song, of frost and flowers, where at Yule-tide the mountains wear a mantle of pure white snow while flowers bloom gaily in field and garden, the season's observance approaches more nearly than in any other country to the old Roman Saturnalia.
The Celts who taught the Spaniards the love of ballads and song left some traces of the sun-worshipers' traditions, but they are few in comparison with those of other European countries. Spain is a land apparently out of the line of Wodin's travel and influence, where one looks in vain for the mysterious mistletoe, the pretty holly, and the joyful Christmas tree.
The season is rigidly observed in churches, but otherwise it loses its spirit of devotion in that of wild revelry. Music, mirth, and hilarity are the leading features of the occasion, and home and family pleasures are secondary affairs.
Of course the customs vary in different provinces, some of which still cling to primitive forms of observance while others are fast adopting those of foreign residents and becoming Continental in style. But everywhere throughout the land Christmas is the day of days,—the great church festival observed by all.
The Noche-buena or Good Night, preceding Christmas, finds the shops gay with sweets and fancy goods suitable for holiday wear, but not with the pretty gifts such as circulate from home to home in northern countries, for here gifts are not generally exchanged.
Doctors, ministers, and landlords receive their yearly gifts of turkeys, cakes, and produce from their dependents, but the love of presenting dainty Christmas gifts has not reached the land of the three C's—the Cid, Cervantes, and Columbus.
Do you know what you would probably do if you were a dark-cheeked Spanish lad named Miguel, or a bright-eyed, light-hearted Spanish maiden named Dolores?
If you were Miguel you would don your black jacket and brown trousers, knot your gayest kerchief around your neck, and with your guitar in hand you would hasten forth to enjoy the fun that prevails in every street of every town in Spain on Christmas Eve, or, as it is known there, the Noche-buena.
If you were pretty Dolores you would surely wear your red or yellow skirt, or else of striped red and yellow, your best embroidered velvet jacket,—handed down from mother to daughter, and a wonderful sample of the handiwork that once made the country famous,—your numerous necklaces and other ornaments. You would carefully braid your heavy dark tresses and bedeck your shapely head with bright flowers, then with your panderetta or tambourine in hand, you too would join the merry throng that fill the air with mirthful songs and music on Noche-buena; for remember,
The air is full of the spirit of unrest, castanets click joyously, tambourines jingle their silvery strains, while guitars and other musical instruments help to swell the babel of sound preceding the hour of the midnight mass:
and if you have not already done some especially good deed to some fellow mortal, you will hasten to clear your conscience by such an act before the bells announce the hour of its birth. As the stars appear in the heavens, tiny oil lamps are lighted in every house, and among all devout Roman Catholics the image of the Virgin is illuminated with a taper.
The streets, which in many cities are brilliantly lighted with electricity, are crowded with turkeys awaiting purchasers. They are great fat birds that have been brought in from the country and together with quacking ducks and cooing pigeons help to swell the sounds that fill the clear, balmy air. Streets and market-places are crowded with live stock, while every other available spot is piled high with delicious fruit;—golden oranges, sober-hued dates, and indispensable olives; and scattered among these are cheeses of all shapes and kinds, sweetmeats of all sorts, the choice candies that are brought from various provinces, and quaint pigskins of wine. No wonder every one who can do so hurries forth into the street on Noche-buena.
If you are not tempted to stop and gaze at these appetizing exhibits, you will pass quickly on to the brightly lighted booths devoted to toys. Oh, what a feast for young eyes! Here yours will surely light on some coveted treasure. It may be an ordinary toy, a drum, a horn, or it may be a Holy Manger, Shepherds, The Wise Men, or even a Star of the East.
It is hard to keep one's purse closed among such a surfeit of tempting articles, and everywhere money flows freely from hand to hand, although the Spanish are usually very frugal.
As the bells clang out the hour of midnight, you will hurry to join the throng wending its way to the nearest church, where priests in their gorgeous robes,—some of them worn only on this occasion and precious with rare embroidery and valuable jewels,—perform the midnight or cock-crow mass, and where the choir and the priests chant a sweet Christmas hymn together. What if it is late when the service ends? Christmas Eve without dancing is not to be thought of in Spain. So you go forth to find a group of Gipsy dancers who are always on hand to participate in this great festival; or you watch the graceful Spanish maiden in her fluffy skirts of lace, with her deep pointed bodice, a bright flower in her coal-black hair beside the tall comb, and her exquisitely shaped arms adorned with heavy bracelets. "Oh, what magnificent eyes! What exquisite long lashes!" you exclaim to yourself. See her poise an instant with the grace of a sylph, one slippered foot just touching the floor, then click, click, sound the castanets, as they have sounded for upwards of two thousand years and are likely to do for two thousand more, for their inspiriting click seems necessary to move Spanish feet and give grace to the uplifted arms. At first she may favor you with the energetic fandango, or the butterfly-like bolero, but on Christmas Eve the Jota is the universal favorite. It is danced and sung to music which has been brought down to the present time unwritten, and which was passed from mouth to mouth through many generations. Translated the words read:
"Of Jesus the Nativity is celebrated everywhere,
Everywhere reigns contentment, everywhere reigns pleasure,"
the audience joining in the refrain:
"Long live merrymaking, for this is a day of rejoicing,
And may the perfume of pleasure sweeten our existence."
It will probably be late into the morning before the singing, dancing, thought-less crowd turns homeward to rest, and although it is certainly a crowd intoxicated with pleasure, it is never in that condition from liquor.
There are three masses on Christmas Day, and all devout Catholics attend one of them at least, if not all. In some places Nativity plays are given on Christmas Eve or else on Christmas Day. They are long performances, but never tedious to the audiences, because the scenes appeal to them with the force of absolute realism. On Christmas morning the postmen, telegraph boys, and employees of various vocations, present to their employers and others little leaflets containing a verse appropriate to the day, or the single sentence "A Happy Christmas," expecting to receive in return a Christmas box filled with goodies of some kind.
While Spanish children do not have the Christmas tree to gather around they do have the pretty Nacimiento, made of plaster and representing the place of Christ's nativity, with the manger, tiny men and women, trees, and animals, such as are supposed to have existed at the time and place of the Nativity.
The Nacimiento (meaning being born) is lighted with candles, and little folks dance gayly around it to the music of tambourines and their own sweet voices, joyously singing one of the pretty Nativity songs. Groups of children go about the streets singing these songs of which there are many.
In this pleasing custom of the Nacimiento one sees a vestige of the Saturnalia, for during that festival small earthenware figures used to be for sale for the pleasure of children. Although the Spanish race is a mixed one and various peoples have been in power from time to time, at one period the country was, with the exception of Basque, entirely Romanized. It is interesting to note the lingering influence of this mighty Roman nation and find in this century that some of the main features of the great Roman feast are retained in the great Christian feast at Yule-tide.
Southern races were always firm believers in Fate. The Mohammedans reverenced the Tree of Fate, but the Romans held sacred the urn containing the messages of Fate. So the Spaniards cling to the urn, from which at Christmas gatherings of friends it is the custom to draw the names of the men and women whom Fate ordains shall be devoted friends during the year,—the men performing all the duties of lovers. This drawing of one's Fate for the coming year creates great merriment and often no little disappointment. But Fate is inexorable and what is to be must be, so the Spanish maiden accepts graciously the one Fate thus assigns her.
After the midday breakfast on Christmas morning the people usually seek out-of-door pleasures. Among many of the old families only blood relations are expected to eat and drink together on this holy day.
Ordinarily the Spaniard "may find perfect entertainment in a crust of bread and a bit of garlic" as the proverb claims, but at Yule-tide his stomach demands many delicacies peculiar to the season. The Puchero Olla, the national dish for dinner, must have a few extra ingredients added on this occasion. The usual compound of chickens, capons, bacon, mutton, beef, pig's feet, lard, garlic, and everything else the larder affords, is quite insufficient to be boiled together on this occasion. However, if one has no relatives to invite him to a feast, it is an easy matter to secure a Christmas dinner on the streets, where men are ready to cook for him over their braseros of charcoal and venders are near at hand to offer preserved fruits, the famous almond rock, almond soup, truffled turkey, or the most desirable of the season's delicacies,—sea-bream, which is brought from Cadiz especially for Christmas use, and which is eaten at Christmas in accordance with the old-time custom. Nuts of all kinds are abundant. By the side of the streets, venders of chestnuts—the finest in the world—lean against their clumsy two-wheeled carts, picturesque in costumes that are ragged and soiled from long service. Rich layer-cakes of preserves, having almond icing with fruits and liquor-filled ornaments of sugar on top, are frequently sent from friend to friend for dinner.
In Seville, and possibly in other places, the people hurry to the cathedral early in the afternoon in order to secure good places before the high altar from which to view the Siexes, or dances. Yes, dances! This ceremony takes place about five o'clock just as the daylight fades and night draws near. Ten choristers and dancers, indiscriminately termed Siexes, appear before the altar clad in the costume of Seventeenth-Century pages, and reverently and with great earnestness sing and dance an old-time minuet, with castanet accompaniment, of course. The opening song is in honor of the Virgin, beginning:
"Hail, O Virgin, most pure and beautiful."
Among the ancients dancing was a part of religious services, but it is now seldom seen in churches. This Christmas dance, given in a beautiful cathedral just at the close of day, is a very impressive ceremony and forms a fitting close to the Spanish Christmas, which is so largely made up of customs peculiar to ancient and modern races.
In every part of Spain song and dance form an important part of the festivities of Yule-tide, which lasts two weeks, although the laboring class observe but two days of pleasure. At the palace the King holds a reception on New Year's, not for the public generally, but for the diplomats and grandees.
The higher circles of society observe New Year as a time of exchanging calls and visiting, feasting and merrymaking. At the banquets of the wealthy every possible delicacy in the way of food is temptingly displayed, and great elegance in dress indulged in by the ladies, who wear their finest gowns and adorn themselves in priceless jewels and rare laces. But there is so much etiquette to be observed among this class of Spaniards that one looks for the real enjoyment of the season among the common classes.
In some parts of Spain bull-fights are given as late as December, but cold weather has a softening effect on the poor bulls and makes them less ferocious, so unless the season proves unusually warm that favorite entertainment has to be abandoned for a time. Meanwhile in the streets and homes one may often see a father on all fours enacting the infuriated bull for his little sons to attack; in this way he teaches them the envied art of bull-fighting. The Yule-tide festivities end at Twelfth Day,—Epiphany,—when crowds of young folks go from gate to gate in the cities to meet the Magi, and after much merriment they come to the conclusion that the Magi will not appear until the following year.
The song through all heaven's arches ran,
And told the wondrous tales aloud,
The trembling fire that looked so wan,
The weeping sun behind the cloud,
A God, a God become a man!
A mortal man become a God.
—Violante Do Ceo.
This is taken from Yuletide in Many Lands.
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved