The twelfth of October is an important date in Spain — a national holiday in honour of la Virgen del Pilar (The Virgin of the Pillar). Each city, town and village has its own distinctive statue of the Virgin Mary to which are ascribed miraculous properties and which are in turn venerated according to local custom and tradition. Madrid has a number of Virgins — la Virgen del Almudena, la Virgen de Atocha — as do other large cities such as Seville or Barcelona, but it is Zaragoza’s Virgin, la Virgen del Pilar, that has gained national and international prominence (she is the Patron Saint of “Hispanidad” — Hispanicity). The Virgin of the Pillar’s story is quite intriguing and has its origins in the very beginnings of Christianity. (If you want a less formal, bar-room discussion of the Virgin, see my book, the Grotto!)
In the year 40 AD the Virgin Mary (as a mortal, pre-Assumption) appeared to St. James in the Aragonese city of Zaragoza (then Caesaraugusta, an important outpost of Roman rule in Hispania). As evidence of her apparition, she left behind a column of jasper — the Pillar (el Pilar). Whatever about the truth of its origins, the Pillar (1.7 m high and 24 cm in diameter) seems to have been an object of devotion from the very earliest Christian times, forming the centerpiece of a series of ever more elaborate chapels and churches until the current massive cathedral was completed in the seventeenth century (although bits and bobs were added to it well into the twentieth century). Legend states the Pillar has never been moved from its original spot. The late gothic statue that currently sits atop the Pillar dates from 1435 and is attributed to one Juan de la Huerta. The Virgin is crowed and wears a long tunic and cloak and rests in a specially-constructed chapel in the cathedral. On the second, twelfth and twentieth of each month the cloak is raised, allowing devotees to see the full Pillar. On the twelfth of October, the Virgin is the protagonist in a number of ceremonies and traditions, including the Offering of Flowers, a pontifical mass, the Offering of Fruits and the unique and celebrated Procession of the Glass Rosary, which winds its way through Zaragoza at night.
In Madrid, I happen to live in a neighbourhood called the “Barrio del Pilar” — the neighbourhood of the Pillar — dedicated to the Virgen del Pilar. From the first weekend of October until the weekend after the twelfth it’s party time here! One long street is closed off and becomes taken over by carnies, hawkers and food stalls of every description.
We have a big wheel, bumper cars and all sorts of other amusements. There’s the smell of fried chorizo and chistorra floating on the breeze. Popcorn, candyfloss, roast chestnuts, beer, sangria and patatas bravas are only a few steps to the nearest stall away. From early evening until late at night crowds flock to the fiestas, which culminate in a series of concerts and a fireworks display.
Those of a religious persuasion can take part in the events centred around the many churches in the neighbourhood and, in the chill of the October nightfall, it really feels like the fiestas are the last hurray of the summer. From here on in the weather will get cooler, the leaves start to turn and we’ll see an end to the long, balmy evenings we’ve enjoyed heretofore. So we’ll cherish the party while it lasts and save a thought for the Pillar of jasper in Zaragoza, in whose honour the whole shebang is.