How Spain usually celebrates its National Day (and why not everyone is happy about it)

How Spain usually celebrates its National Day (and why not everyone is happy about it)
The Legionnaires have a goat as a mascot. Photo: AFP
This year's National Day in Spain will be a low-key celebration in the midst of the country's second coronavirus wave and with Madrid under a new state of emergency. But what is 'Spain's "Día de la Hispanidad" usually about and why do some of its critics want it banned?

What will happen this year?

This year's National or Hispanic Day celebrations in Madrid will be more subdued than ever as the Spanish capital grapples with one of the highest infection rates in Europe and new restrictions on mobility.

The usual crowds that gather along Madrid's emblematic Paseo de la Castellana will not be able to attend the low-key military parades, even though the capital will have more people than usual as 'Madrileños' haven't been allowed to leave the city for this bank holiday weekend.

Most ceremonies will take place within the gates of the Royal Palace from midday, as well as a reduced military parade (down from the usual 3,500 soldiers to 500) which only ministers and members of Spain's royal family will attend. 

However, Spain's far-right party Vox has called for demonstrations to be staged in cities across Spain where protesters drive in their cars rather than march, under the motto “Spaniards to the street – We're against the criminal and totalitarian government”.

So what usually happens on this national day of festivity? Why does Spain celebrate it?  And why do some of its critics want it banned?

A bit of history

There may not be much mention of the explorer himself but the date October 12th commemorates the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon in Spanish). 

Should Spain still be celebrating Christopher Columbus? Photo: AFP

On that day in 1492 a Spanish expedition led by Columbus arrived to what today is known as San Salvador, in the Bahamas, and made the first step towards what would become the Spanish empire. Spain conquered the south of what today is the United States and a great part of the western coast of South America. Together with other territories that the Spanish realm had already conquered, it made the Spanish empire the greatest of its time.

The Hispanic Day also commemorates the unification of the realms of Castilla and Aragón, which created Spain as we know it today, an event that happened earlier in 1492 after the Spanish army reconquered Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors in Europe.

Día de la Hispanidad first began being celebrated in Madrid in 1935 and was made an official public holiday in 1981.

In 1987, its name was changed to Fiesta Nacional (Spain’s National Day), removing any reference to Spanish colonialism.

The controversy

There is a lot of controversy around this celebration in Spain, and no surprise to learn that the biggest criticism comes from Catalonia, the region pushing for independence.

READ ALSO: Catalans march for unity on Spain's national day

Catalans against independence took to the streets for a pro-Spain rally in Barcelona. Photo: AFP

While some there opposed to breaking away from Spain rally to celebrate Spain’s National Day, others rally against it. Some town halls and companies refuse to observe it as a holiday and instead changed the day off work to October 1st when protests were held to mark the first anniversary of the illegal referendum on independence.

READ MORE: Badalona cancels Columbus holiday 'glorifying genocide'

Some political parties in the Basque Country and Navarra also refuse to mark Hispanic Day. Basque nationalists are absent for the same reason as the Catalan separatists and in Navarra, the regional government replaced the Dia de Hispanidad with the Day of the Indigenous Peoples.

Podemos, a far-left party created in 2014, strongly disagrees with the October 12th celebration. Their representatives, led by Pablo Iglesias, have refused over the years to take part in the official event, partly because it is led by the King, and they are a Republican party.

They also argue that celebrating Columbus Day would mean celebrating the genocide that followed his discovery of “the new world”.

In many people’s minds the day still has strong associations with the Francoist era when the dictator used the celebration to display his military might and extol the values of the dictatorship.

How do people celebrate?

The biggest event is a massive military parade along Madrid’s Paseo de la Castellana – it is also Armed Forces Day.

The army, navy, air force, Guardia Civil and even the Spanish Legionnaires – with their goat mascot –  come out in force to march along the capital’s grandest thoroughfare.

King Felipe VI, who is head of the armed forces, attends with Queen Letizia and their daughters, as well as the Prime Minister, leading politicians, and foreign dignitaries.

The culmination of the event is a fly-by from the Spanish Air Force acrobatics team, the Patrulla Águila, who release a stream of crimson and gold smoke to replicate Spain’s national flag across the sky.

Military aircraft trail smoke in the colours of Spain's national flag during the parade. Photo: AFP

Celebrations also take place in other parts of Spain. Malaga holds a military procession in its Parque Huelin. Huelva, where the Columbus expedition set sail, also holds a big celebration, as does Zaragoza, where the cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady of the Pilar, the patron of the Spanish Guardia Civil and of the Hispanic world.

Many families, especially those connected to the military, will turn out to watch the parades, but for the most part people will see it as a day off and do what people do best on a holiday: sleep late, enjoy a long lunch or escape the cities for a long weekend.

GALLERY: Best images from Spain's National Day parade