Cabezudos, Charangas, Chinchín, Cachirulos and Churros: The Secular Side of a Spanish Religious Holiday part I

The cult of the Virgin of the Pillar dates back to 40 AD, when the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared in Saragossa (at that time the Immortal City of Cesaraugusta) perched on a column supported by a host of angels. The monumental Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar) defines the skyline of Saragossa. Every October an entire week is devoted to celebrating the Virgin, who holds the official status of patroness of the city. The traditional aspects of this week of devotion include religious services, long parades of citizens meticulously decked out in traditional costumes bearing fruit and flowers to the plaza of the Basilica and an evening procession that features a long series of iconic stained glass floats that are carried through the streets as unique sort of processional rosary.  However, the week-long festivities that mark the Festival of the “Virgen del Pilar” in Spain are not all religious and solemn.

Saragossa has not fallen prey to the Spanish syndrome of orienting local color towards the tastes and expectations of foreign tourists. Almost everybody participates in local festivals in one way or another making them city-wide block parties. The Virgin of the Pillar is not only the patron of the City of Saragossa (still officially “Immortal”) but of all “Hispanidad”, which implies patronage of all Spanish-speaking countries and anything related to Hispanic culture. This embraces everything from the Armed Forces to the forces of total anarchy and during the week-long festivities dedicated to “Pilarcica” (pronounced Pee-lar-see-ka), as the virgin is affectionately referred to in Aragon, people turn out in mass to celebrate their unadulterated “Spanishness” in a wide variety of ways that would  almost certainly have staggered the Holy Mother’s  imagination.  The most secular and raucous of these celebrations is a massive charanga parade down the central boulevard of the city. As the official tourist guides provide full coverage of the religious and folkloric sides of this emblematic holiday, I offer a few translators’ notes to help hapless visitors understand its other more contemporary and secular facets.

Key vocabulary:

Cabezudo: a carnival figure with a large head

Cachirulo: – a red and black checked bandana that is worn as a symbol of Aragonese identity during regional and local holidays. (one of several uses of the word)

Charanga: My Oxford Spanish English dictionary’s definition of charanga as a “military band” falls short of its contemporary meaning. My well-worn Collins rates a bit better, defining it as either a military band or a band of street musicians.  Maria Moliner’s  Diccionario de uso del español defines charanga as a “musical band of little importance, made up of wind instruments,  usually brass instruments – (see chinchín)”.  Importance, just like beauty, is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. For some local musicians, the charanga is the year’s biggest gig that he or she wouldn’t miss for anything in the world. Oxford provides the classic example of its use in the phrase “La España de charanga y pandereta”, which it translates as “the Spain of bullfighters and flamenco dancers”. This is a very loose translation colored by a foreigner’s perceptions of Spain that blithely ignores the meaning of both charanga and pandereta , equates Hispanic culture with bullfighters and commits the unforgivable error of debasing the art of flamenco – but this is a topic I will save for The Secular Side of a Spanish Religious Holiday part II.

Chinchín: María Moliner: Diccionario de uso del español defines chinchín as “music that includes cymbals, particularly performed by bands of street musicians” – obviously the sound of cymbals struck with a light hand. Also used as a toast when clinking glasses.

Churros: long extruded strips of fried dough very often accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate, even in warm weather.  Churros and Spain are like Sabretts and New York.

Peñas: social clubs that can be organized around a common interest such as music or football but just as well for no other motive than organizing parties.

Now that you have your vocabulary down pat, you are ready to join the party.

Days before the solemn parades of citizens carrying offerings of fruit and flowers to the Virgin, the streets of Zaragoza fill up with peñas and charangas accompanied by a small army of cabezudos.  All the revelers wear carnival get ups or T-shirts that bear the name of their peña and the wine and beer flow so freely that one would think that the patron of Saragossa was Bacchus rather than the Virgin Mary. This is a city that takes its beer seriously and the “Zaragozana” brewing company maintains a team of magnificent dray horses and a vintage wagon  that  filled with a ragtime-inspired band  is a part of all city parades. Beer holds its own with wine in the street as the paraders wend their way down the main boulevard. This year a sudden downpour diminished the effect of what should have been the grand finale of the parade, but before the storm scattered the party makers to the four winds, I managed to take a few snapshots.  One of the participating peñas was “B.O.2”, whose name is a play on “beodo”, a word whose Latin roots signify “cultured” but that has since seen a long slide down in the vernacular to end up  meaning  out-and-out drunk in Spanish.  Not everyone tipples. The nice little girl sporting a cachirulo in the company of two red devils is almost certain to end the day with a snack of churros and a cup of hot chocolate.