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The National Holiday
In the United States, Columbus Day (shifted this year to October 11) is mostly an excuse for government employees, including those of the Post Office, to enjoy a long weekend, while ordinary Americans work. In Spain, it has acquired a new life. The Franco-style "Day of la Hispanidad" had been dropped, as has "Día de la Raza" with its confusing racial, indeed racist, connotations. Now it is simply the national holiday (fiesta nacional).
However, its has acquired a new traditional significance. For the last seven years, it has featured an impressive military parade down Madrid's main avenue, with the King and the members of the cabinet taking the salute from the stand. The units included the Guardia Civil in their quaint but proud hats. The Guardia Civil, hated by Basque nationalists and others, is viewed as the symbol of the government's power to impose itself. It seemed like a reminder that the government is prepared to take drastic measures if necessary.
October 12 is also the feast of the Virgen del Pilar, the doll-like image of the Virgin, which as usual was taken out of its big shrine in Zaragoza and paraded around on a float covered with seven thousand (!) flowers. While the military parade symbolized the conquest of America, the parade of the Virgin symbolized its spiritual conquest. While there were large crowds for these ceremonies, many took off for the long weekend. Heavy rain throughout much of Spain dampened the shows and spoiled the holidays.
In Santiago de Compostela, the Guardia Civil paid homage to St. James (Santiago Matamoros) in the magnificent shrine symbolic of the reconquest of Spain, but in other cities like Barcelona the ceremonies were less impressive. The National Holiday symbolizes Spain and its unity, with Madrid at the center.
Spain seems to have found a formula which suits it. Contrasting with the quiet dignity of Spanish public life, France was the scene of wild political activities, with mobs of students joyfully expressing their dislike of the government, while in Paris, a large mob of restaurant cooks demonstrated against MacDonalds' fast food outside the National Assembly. They spattered eggs over the police, who responded with tear gas. This, said the angry cooks, is the way the government treats us little folk.
Ronald Hilton - 10/12/99