This past weekend was not only Halloween in Madrid, but also a national holiday here in Spain. Perhaps this year it wasn’t as obvious due to the fact it fell on a weekend, but November 1st is observed every year as el Día de Todos los Santos, or All Saints’ Day. Chances are that you are familiar with the term, but maybe just from having seen it on the calendar. For most Americans, this particular holiday doesn’t have any meaning and is merely one of those days that appears on the calendar but is not observed, as is the case with Columbus Day or Flag Day. Those who were raised Catholic or Anglican may be more familiar with the idea, however. Whatever the case may be, here in Spain it’s a day off, and thus, welcomed by all.
All Saints’ Day History
The exact origin of All Saints’ Day is unknown, but the earliest historical precedent is when Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin and all martyrs on May 13, 609 or 610. Others argue that the real basis for the holiday is the pagan celebration the Feast of the Lemuria, which had a similar theme of honoring all the deceased. In any case, the current date was set by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century when he founded an oratory in St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate all saints and martyrs.
Observation in Spain
El Día de Todos los Santos is observed in Spain as one of ten holidays celebrated at the national level in 2014. On this day people typically go to the cemetery where their loved ones lie and partake in activities to honor them. This may include tasks like cleaning their tombstones and leaving flowers, but in Spain it is not traditional to prepare food for the dead like in similar celebrations in Mexico and other Latin American countries. It is also customary to stage Don Juan Tenorio, a play by José Zorrilla published in two parts in 1844. In Madrid, All Saints’ Day is not observed with great zeal like it can be in smaller cities and towns; most people head to the city’s cemeteries to spend a bit of time at their deceased family members’ graves in a solemn fashion.
The largest and most emblematic cemetery in Madrid is El Cementerio de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena, located in the East of the city in the Ciudad Lineal District. With close to 300 acres of land, it is not only the largest in the capital, but also one of the biggest in Western Europe. La Almudena served as the main cemetery in Madrid up until the latter half of last century. As a result, many famous people are buried there, such as the singer Lola Flores, Atlético de Madrid Football Club president Jesús Gil, former mayor Enrique Tierno Galván, engineer Arturio Soria, and the empty tomb of renowned Spanish artist Franciso de Goya y Lucientes.
Another Day on the Calendar
For those who do not have family members buried in the city, All Saints’ Day is often just another day on the calendar without any special significance. Many people take advantage of the day off to do different things, be it rest, spend time with family and friends, or whatever they do in their free time. Ironically, Halloween is a much more visible celebration in the city and it seems as if the traditional observation of el Día de Todos los Santos is on the wane. Nonetheless, the Almudena Cemetery is still visited by a great deal of people on this date; only time will tell if this continues.