What does Spain celebrate on October 12th?

Anyone who had lived in Spain long enough to become familiar with local customs knows that the 12th of October is an important public holiday. Its official name is National Day of Spain, although if you ask your Spanish friends, they might seriously confuse you with different names for this holiday, starting from Our Lady of Pilar Day (Fiestas de Pilar) to Columbus Day. Don’t be surprised to stumble across other semi-official names such as:

  • Day of the Spanish Race (Día de la Raza),
  • Motherland Day (Día de la Madre Patria),
  • Our Lady of Pilar Day (Día del Pilar),
  • Discovery Day (Día del Descubrimiento),
  • Columbus Day (Día de Colón),
  • National Day of Spain (Día Nacional de España) or
  • Hispanic Day (Fiesta de la Hispanidad).

So, what do Spaniards – and not only Spaniards – celebrate on the 12th of October?

This day in history

The 12th of October is a highly symbolic date both for Spaniards and the whole of Latin America since it was on the 12th of October of 1492 when the ships of Christopher Columbus reached the shores of Giananí Island, nowadays known as El Salvador. Although at the moment Columbus believed he had discovered a mysterious country of Chipang (Japan), it took several years and a few more expeditions led by Columbus himself, Nuñes de Balboa, and Amerigo Vespucci to finally confirm the discovery of a new continent.

It would be fair to say that at the end of the XV century Spain was an authentic cultural and military power that reigned both on land and at sea. In 1492 the first Castilian language grammar book was published by Antonio de Nebrija. The first published grammar of a Romance language set the standard for subsequent modern Spanish language grammar. Some twenty years before King Ferdinand II of Aragon married Queen Isabella I of Castile and they became known as the Catholic Monarchs. By means of that royal intermarriage, they achieved the unification of separate kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, and in 1492 the Monarchs conquered Granada and completed the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Therefore, the discovery of a new continent and the reaches hidden in its depths turned Spain into one of the most powerful states of the time.

In 1892, during the regency of Maria Cristina of Austria and to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Discovery, a royal decree proposed for the first time to celebrate the 12th of October as a national holiday. By then Spain has lost almost all its colonies in Latin America but still exercised a strong influence in the region. The 12th of October became a holiday during the reign of Alfonso XIII, but until 1913 it wouldn’t have any official title. In 1913 Faustino Rodrigues San Pedro, ex-mayor of Madrid and the president of Ibero-American Union proposed to name this holiday, meant to unite Spain and all its former colonies, the Day of Spanish Race. The idea received a warm welcome, and the holiday started to take roots in most countries of Latin America. The term hispanidad and the new name for the holiday – Dia de la Hispanidad – appeared for the first time in 1931 and was coined by Ramiro de Maetzu, writer, journalist, and politician. He claimed that the word “race” was inappropriate in the context and proposed to replace it with the word hispanidad, which can be translated as Spanish world, Hispanic world, Spanishness, Spanish spirit, and that was coined similarly with a word “cristianidad” – Christianity – and meant to bear the same deep and wide connotation as the latter.

In 1958, during the dictatorship of Franco, the 12th of October officially became a national holiday. Even after the fall of Franco’s regime Spain would not renounce it and continued celebrating it, although now under the name of National Day of Spain. The 18/1987 law, set out to establish the official holiday, stated that “…the chosen date symbolizes the historic event when Spain, on the verge of concluding a process of construction of the State based on our cultural and political plurality, and the integration of the kingdoms of Spain into a single Monarchy, starts its linguistic and cultural expansion beyond European limits.”

This day today

Now, five hundred years after the discovery of Columbus, we have a different view of the world and our role and place in it. The era of great geographic discoveries, rather than a synonym of progress and enlightenment, nowadays is seen as the time when local cultures were ruthlessly wiped out from the face of the earth, the natural wealth looted shamelessly, and the indigenous population converted to Christianity by fire and fury. The linguistic and cultural projection is no longer seen as an absolute benefit and cannot be separated from the military and colonial expansion. That’s why so many Latin American countries that only a hundred years ago celebrated their “Spanishness” with great enthusiasm, now see the importance of acknowledging their own identity.  And if Honduras has retained both the holiday and its original name – Día de la Raza, in Argentina, for example, it’s now called Cultural Diversity Day (Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural), and Nicaragua celebrates the Indigenous Resistance Day (Día de la Resistencia Indígena). Even in Spain, there are mixed feelings about this day. In Catalonia, for instance, it sparks great controversies, since it was during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs that Catalonia became part of united Spain, and Catalans regard this day as the day of Spanish oppression, and nowadays instead of celebrating it they take out to the streets to protest under the slogan ‘Res a celebrar’ – «nothing to celebrate». So, it looks like, after a hundred years of names and official status changes, it’s about time Spain came up with a new National day that better reflects the new national identity.

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