How Did People Celebrate All Saints’ Day in Our Spanish Culture Before Halloween Arrived ? By Maria Aragon

by Patty Ryan posted on 14 October 2014

Who has heard of the expression “he’s a don juan”, talking about a man who conquers every woman’s heart? Who was Don Juan?

The answer to these questions is the same: Don Juan Tenorio.

This is a classical theater play written in the mid XIX century, by José Zorrilla (born in Valladolid, a city 2 hours north of Madrid), right in the middle of the period of Romanticism. It is therefore a tale about impossible loves, convents, death, cemeteries, ghosts, heaven and hell…

As you probably know, in Madrid, we have the theater for classical plays: El Teatro Español, that we visited last October with INC, where this play was usually performed.

A brief summary of the story could be:
Don Juan Tenorio and his rival, Don Luis Mejía, are two young men who boast about which of them has seduced the most number of women, and who has killed the most men in duels. The clear winner is Don Juan, but Don Luis challenges Don Juan to go to a convent and conquer the heart of a novice nun.

Of course Don Juan succeeds, and the novice is Doña Inés de Ulloa, but, for the first time in his life, Don Juan falls deeply in love and wants to marry her. However, because of his terrible reputation, Doña Inés’ father doesn’t agree at all and, together with Don Luis, goes to Don Juan’s house to kill him. However, it is Don Juan who kills both of them and has to flee to escape justice, leaving Doña Inés desperately unhappy.

Don Juan returns several years later on the night of November 1st which is the night between All Saints’ Day and the Day of the Dead, where in Spain all the dead are commemorated, whether they are Saints or not.

Before going to find Doña Inés, Don Juan goes directly to the cemetery to make sure that his enemies, Doña Inés’ father and Don Luis, are really dead and buried there. To his great sorrow he also discovers the tomb of Doña Inés. As he weeps broken heartedly over her tomb, the statues from the tombs of his two enemies, Don Gonzalo and Don Luis, come to life and attempt to take him to hell with them. At that moment the ghost of Doña Inés appears and manages to take him to heaven with her.

Thus the tradition in Spain was that on the night of November 1st, the Zorrilla play, Don Juan Tenorio, was performed in every town theater, or even by small groups of friends in the little villages. Year after year people looked forward to that night to go and see the performance even though they knew the story by heart. After the performance those who were brave enough dared to go by night to the town cemeteries (cemeteries in Spain are located about a kilometre out of the town, along secondary roads or pathways) to look for the ghosts of Doña Inés and Don Juan or, who knows, maybe the ghost of a relative or a lost love…. Knowing that, groups of young people, dressed up as skeletons, or anything representing death, used to wait, hidden in the dark of the night, behind the tombs, ready to give a “deadly” scare to some of these “brave” people!!

Obviously, this tradition has been losing importance, but I grew up listening to my parents, grandparents and older relatives telling not only the story of Don Juan but, mainly, scary tales of mystery, cemeteries, fear and death. I remember with special affection my father’s family, from a little village near Valladolid – the birthplace of José Zorrilla – and the place I used to go to as a child and teenager. There I would go with my family or friends to the cemetery to see what scary things could happen to us on that terrifying night!

It may seem a strange union, but it is interesting that a love story with a tragic end (everybody dies which is so typical of the Romantic writers) is linked to the day when we all remember our loved ones who are no longer with us. But ultimately, it is probably the only day we dare to approach and even laugh at death, which is something so close to us as human beings. It is probably the only day in the year that we feel brave enough to look at death “face to face”.