TODOS LOS SANTOS – A VILLAGE CELEBRATION
In Spain, it is a tradition to commemorate All Saints’ Day by visiting the cemeteries where family members are buried. Madrid’s largest cemetery, la Almudena, measures 1.2 km² or half a square mile and is so big you need a map to go around it. During the week preceding All Saints’ Day on November 1st, the cemetery is full of people bringing flowers to lay on the tombs of their departed loved ones. There are so many wreaths, bouquets and floral arrangements that the whole place is transformed into a glorious flower garden with the scent of lilies and roses filling the air. The normally tranquil cemetery buzzes with the conversations of people tending to the graves and busily filling the flower vases with water.
The tradition of visiting family tombs also sees a huge exodus from big cities of people returning to their towns and villages spread over Spain. There were an estimated four million cars on the roads over this year’s three-day weekend. For many Spaniards, All Saints’ Day is an important family gathering – just as Thanksgiving is for families in the U.S.
My husband was born in a tiny village hidden among the hills and valleys of Galicia – not far from the Camino de Santiago. Because a lot of young people have left the village to seek work in the cities, there is only the older generation left to keep up the traditions and celebrate the different feast days. But there is one day in the year when all the family gathers – Todos los Santos. The small chapel is swept and polished and decorated with flowers, and new candles are put in the candlesticks. The families gather outside in the little lane that runs through the centre of the village and smiles and hugs are exchanged as people greet each other. The old priest arrives for his fourth Mass of the day. Nowadays,there are so few priests that the ones who are left have to take care of several different parishes and churches scattered through the little villages. The Mass is said in Gallego, the lovely sing-song language of Galicia, and the priest leads the singing in his wavery old voice. Prayers are said for the different families and their departed loved ones. Then everyone walks over to the little cemetery, tucked into the hillside, with a wonderful view down the valley and over the vineyards.
Everyone buried in the tiny cemetery is related to each other either by blood or through marriage and as you walk around and look at the differenttombs, you see names repeated again and again. Every family vault is decorated with flowers that have been grown especially for this celebration among the cabbages and tomato vines in the little plots and tiny fields scattered over the hillsides. As each generation inherited the land, the fields have been divided among the different children so they become smaller and smaller until some are only a few square yards. However, each one piece of land is carefully tended and produces not only vegetables, but exuberant explosions of colour in roses, dahlias, chrysanthemums, lilies and hydrangeas. It is a matter of pride to produce as many blooms as possible to decorate the cemetery for All Saints’ Day because it is considered almost sacrilegious to buy flowers. Unlike in Madrid, where flowers have to be bought, in small villages in Galicia, people spend a lot of money only for funerals. They buy the largest wreath or flower display they can afford. All Saints’ Day is for flowers grown with care by families for this occasion.
The visit to the cemetery is followed by a big meal eaten all together –perhaps 40 people gathered to enjoy caldo gallego; ham and chorizo; empanada; roast lamb served with potatoes and green beans condimented with garlic and sweet paprika toasted in olive oil. Dessert is cheese served with home-made quince preserve (membrillo), flan with sponge cake, and grapes with roasted chestnuts. All of this is washed down with wine from the region – Ribera Sacra – made by the family, and finally coffee served with home-made liqueurs – ‘aguardiente’, ‘licor café’ or ‘licor de hierbas’. There is much laughter and many well-loved stories that are repeated every year, reminiscences about loved ones who are no longer here. The older generation remember times past while young children run around shrieking.
There are a few tears but mostly laughter and warm memories and a sense of continuity as the family gathers together for another year. The festival of All Saints’ Day is a time to remember, to give thanks, and to pay homage to loved ones who are no longer with us.