Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  The Fairs

The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

John Hay (1838–1905)

The Fairs

From “Castilian Days”

WITH the long days and cooler air of the autumn begin the different fairs. These are relics of the times of tyranny and exclusive privilege, when for a few days each year, by the intervention of the Church, or as a reward for civic service, full liberty of barter and sale was allowed to all citizens. This custom, more or less modified, may be found in most cities of Europe. The boulevards of Paris swarm with little booths at Christmas-time, which begin and end their lawless commercial life within the week. In Vienna, in Leipsic, and other cities, the same waste-weir of irregular trade is periodically opened. These fairs begin in Madrid with the autumnal equinox, and continue for some weeks in October. They disappear from the Alcalá to break out with renewed virulence in the avenue of Atocha, and girdle the city at last with a belt of booths. While they last they give great animation and spirit to the street life of the town. You can scarcely make your way among the heaps of gaudy shawls and handkerchiefs, cheap laces and illegitimate jewels, that cumber the pavement. When the Jews were driven out of Spain, they left behind the true genius of bargaining. A nut-brown maid is attracted by a brilliant red-and-yellow scarf. She asks the sleepy merchant nodding before his wares, “What is this rag worth?” He answers with profound indifference, “Ten reals.”

“Hombre! Are you dreaming or crazy?” She drops the coveted neck gear, and moves on apparently horror-stricken.

The chapman calls her back peremptorily: “Don’t be rash! The scarf is worth twenty reals, but for the sake of Santisima Maria I offered it to you for half price. Very well! You are not suited. What will you give?”

“Caramba! Am I buyer and seller as well? The thing is worth three reals; more is a robbery.”

“Jesus! Maria! José! and all the family! Go thou with God! We cannot trade. Sooner than sell for less than eight reals I will raise the cover of my brains! Go thou! It is eight of the morning, and still thou dreamest.”

She lays down the scarf reluctantly, saying, “Five?” But the outraged mercer snorts scornfully, “Eight is my last word! Go to!”

She moves away, thinking how well that scarf would look in the Apollo Gardens, and casts over her shoulder a Parthian glance and bid, “Six!”

“Take it! It is madness, but I cannot waste my time in bargaining.”

Both congratulate themselves on the operation. He would have taken five, and she would have given seven. How trade would suffer if we had windows in our breasts!

The first days of November are consecrated to all the saints and to the souls of all the blessed dead. They are observed in Spain with great solemnity; but as the cemeteries are generally of the dreariest character, bare, bleak, and most forbidding under the ashy sky of the late autumn, the days are deprived of that exquisite sentiment that pervades them in countries where the graves of the dead are beautiful. There is nothing more touching than these offerings of memory you see every year in Mont Parnasse and Père-la-Chaise. Apart from all beliefs, there is a mysterious influence for good exerted upon the living by the memory of the beloved dead. On all hearts not utterly corrupt, the thoughts that come by the graves of the departed fall like dew from heaven, and quicken into life purer and higher resolves.

In Spain, where there is nothing but desolation in graveyards, the churches are crowded instead, and the bereaved survivors commend to God their departed friends and their own stricken hearts in the dim and perfumed aisles of temples made with hands. A taint of gloom thus rests upon the recollection and the prayer, far different from the consolation that comes with the free air and the sunshine, and the infinite blue vault, where Nature conspires with revelation to comfort and cherish and console.

Christmas apparently comes in Spain on no other mission than that referred to in the old English couplet, “bringing good cheer.” The Spaniards are the most frugal of people, but during the days that precede their Noche Buena, their Good Night, they seem to be given up as completely to cares of the commissariat as the most eupeptic of Germans. Swarms of turkeys are driven in from the surrounding country, and taken about the streets by their rustic herdsmen, making the roads gay with their scarlet wattles, and waking rural memories by their vociferous gobbling. The great market-place of the season is the Plaza Mayor. The ever-fruitful provinces of the south are laid under contribution, and the result is a wasteful show of tropical luxuriance that seems most incongruous under the wintry sky. There are mountains of oranges and dates, brown hillocks of nuts of every kind, stores of every product of this versatile soil. The air is filled with nutty and fruity fragrance. Under the ancient arcades are the stalls of the butchers, rich with the mutton of Castile, the hams of Estremadura, and the hero-nourishing bull beef of Andalusian pastures.

At night the town is given up to harmless racket. Nowhere has the tradition of the Latin Saturnalia been fitted with less change into the Christian calendar. Men, women, and children of the proletariat—the unemancipated slaves of necessity—go out this night to cheat their misery with noisy frolic. The owner of a tambourine is the equal of a peer; the proprietor of a guitar is the captain of his hundred. They troop through the dim city with discordant revel and song. They have little idea of music. Every one sings, and sings ill. Every one dances, without grace or measure. Their music is a modulated howl of the East. Their dancing is the savage leaping of barbarians. There is no lack of couplets, religious, political, or amatory. I heard one ragged woman with a brown baby at her breast go shrieking through the Street of the Magdalen.

  • “This is the eve of Christmas,
  • No sleep from now till morn;
  • The Virgin is in travail,
  • At twelve will the child be born!”
  • Behind her stumped a crippled beggar, who croaked in a voice rough with frost and aguardiente his deep disillusion and distrust of the great:
  • “This is the eve of Christmas,
  • But what is that to me?
  • We are ruled by thieves and robbers,
  • As it was and will always be.”
  • Next comes a shouting band of the youth of Spain, strapping boys with bushy locks, crisp and black almost to blueness, and gay young girls with flexible forms and dark Arab eyes that shine with a phosphorescent light in the shadows. They troop on with clacking castanets. The challenge of the mozos rings out on the frosty air,
  • “This is the eve of Christmas,
  • Let us drink, and love our fill!”
  • And the saucy antiphon of girlish voices responds,
  • “A man may be bearded and gray,
  • But a woman can fool him still!”
  • The Christmas and New Year’s holidays continue for a fortnight, ending with the Epiphany. On the eve of the Day of the Kings a curious farce is performed by bands of the lowest orders of the people, which demonstrates the apparently endless naïveté of their class. In every coterie of water-carriers, or mozos de cordel, there will be one found innocent enough to believe that the Magi are coming to Madrid that night, and that a proper respect to their rank requires that they must he met at the city gate. To perceive the coming of their feet, beautiful upon the mountains, a ladder is necessary, and the poor victim of the comedy is loaded with this indispensable “property.” He is dragged by his gay companions, who never tire of the exquisite wit of their jest, from one gate to another, until suspicion supplants faith in the mind of the neophyte, and the farce is over.

    In the burgher society of Castile this night is devoted to a very different ceremony. Each little social circle comes together in a house agreed upon. They take mottoes of gilded paper and write on each the name of some one of the company. The names of the ladies are thrown into one urn, and those of the cavaliers into another, and they are drawn out by pairs. These couples are thus condemned by fortune to intimacy during the year. The gentleman is always to be at the orders of the dame and to serve her faithfully in every knightly fashion. He has all the duties and none of the privileges of a lover, unless it be the joy of those “who stand and wait.” The relation is very like that which so astonished M. de Gramont in his visit to Piedmont, where the cavalier of service never left his mistress in public and never approached her in private.

    The true Carnival survives in its naive purity only in Spain. It has faded in Rome into a romping day of clown’s play. In Paris it is little more than a busier season for dreary and professional vice. Elsewhere all over the world the Carnival gaieties are confined to the salon. But in Madrid the whole city, from grandee to cordwainer, goes with childlike earnestness into the enjoyment of the hour. The Corso begins in the Prado on the last Sunday before Lent, and lasts four days. From noon to night the great drive is filled with a double line of carriages two miles long, and between them are the landaus of the favored hundreds who have the privilege of driving up and down free from the law of the road. This right is acquired by the payment of ten dollars a day to city charities, and produces some fifteen thousand dollars every Carnival. In these carriages all the society of Madrid may be seen; and on foot, darting in and out among the hoofs of the horses, are the young men of Castile in every conceivable variety of absurd and fantastic disguise. There are, of course, pirates and Indians and Turks, monks, prophets, and kings, but the favorite costumes seem to be the Devil and the Englishman. Sometimes the Yankee is attempted, with indifferent success. He wears a ribbon-wreathed Italian bandit’s hat, an embroidered jacket, slashed buckskin trousers, and a wide crimson belt—a dress you would at once recognize as universal in Boston.

    Most of the maskers know, by name, at least, the occupants of the carriages. There is always room for a mask in a coach. They leap in, swarming over the back or the sides, and in their shrill monotonous scream they make the most startling revelations of the inmost secrets of your soul. There is always something impressive in the talk of an unknown voice, but especially is this so in Madrid, where every one scorns his own business, and devotes himself rigorously to his neighbor’s. These shrieking young monks and devilkins often surprise a half-formed thought in the heart of a fair Castilian and drag it out into day and derision. No one has the right to be offended. Duchesses are called Tu! Isabel! by chin-dimpled schoolboys, and the proudest beauties in Spain accept bonbons from plebeian hands. It is true, most of the maskers are of the better class. Some of the costumes are very rich and expensive, of satin and velvet heavy with gold. I have seen a distinguished diplomatist in the guise of a gigantic canary-bird, hopping briskly about in the mud with bedraggled tail-feathers, shrieking well-bred sarcasms with his yellow beak.

    The charm of the Madrid Carnival is this, that it is respected and believed in. The best and fairest pass the day in the Corso, and gallant young gentlemen think it worth while to dress elaborately for a few hours of harmless and spirituelle intrigue. A society that enjoys a holiday so thoroughly has something in it better than the blasé cynicism of more civilized capitals. These young fellows talk like the lovers of the old romances. I have never heard prettier periods of devotion than from some gentle savage, stretched out on the front seat of a landau under the peering eyes of his lady, safe in his disguise if not self-betrayed, pouring out his young soul in passionate praise and prayer; around them the laughter and the cries, the cracking of whips, the roll of wheels, the presence of countless thousands, and yet these two young hearts alone under the pale winter sky. The rest of the Continent has outgrown the true Carnival. It is pleasant to see this gay relic of simpler times, when youth was young. No one here is too “swell” for it. You may find a duke in the disguise of a chimney-sweep, or a butcher-boy in the dress of a crusader. There are none so great that their dignity would suffer by a day’s reckless foolery, and there are none so poor that they cannot take the price of a dinner to buy a mask and cheat their misery by mingling for a time with their betters in the wild license of the Carnival.

    The winter’s gaiety dies hard. Ash Wednesday is a day of loud merriment, and is devoted to a popular ceremony called the Burial of the Sardine. A vast throng of working men carry with great pomp a link of sausage to the bank of the Manzanares and inter it there with great solemnity. On the following Saturday, after three days of death, the Carnival has a resurrection, and the maddest, wildest ball of the year takes place at the Opera. Then the sackcloth and ashes of Lent come down in good earnest, and the town mourns over its scarlet sins. It used to be very fashionable for the genteel Christians to repair during this season of mortification to the Church of San Gines, and scourge themselves lustily in its subterranean chambers. A still more striking demonstration was for gentlemen in love to lash themselves on the sidewalks where passed the ladies of their thoughts. If the blood from the scourges sprinkled them as they sailed by, it was thought an attention no female heart could withstand. But these wholesome customs have decayed of late unbelieving years.

    The Lenten piety increases with the lengthening days. It reaches its climax on Holy Thursday. On this day all Spain goes to church; it is one of the obligatory days. The more you go, the better for you; so the good people spend the whole day from dawn to dusk roaming from one church to another, and investing an Ave and a Paternoster in each. This fills every street of the city with the pious crowd. No carriages are permitted. A silence like that of Venice falls on the rattling capital. With three hundred thousand people in the street, the town seems still. In 1870, a free-thinking cabman dared to drive up the Calle Alcalá. He was dragged from his box and beaten half to death by the chastened mourners, who yelled as they kicked and cuffed him, “Que bruto! He will wake our Jesus.”