No people embrace more readily than the Spaniards the opportunity of spending a day without work. Their frequent holidays are a relic of the days when the Church stood between the people and their taskmasters, and fastened more firmly its hold upon the hearts of the ignorant and overworked masses, by becoming at once the fountain of salvation in the next world, and of rest in this. The government rather encouraged this growth of play-days, as the Italian Bourbons used to foster mendicancy, by way of keeping the people as unthrifty as possible. Lazzaroni are so much more easily managed than burghers!
It is only the holy days that are successfully celebrated in Spain. The state has tried of late years to consecrate to idle parade a few revolutionary dates, but they have no vigorous national life. They grow feebler and more colorless year by year, because they have no depth of earth.
The most considerable of these national festivals is the 2d of May, which commemorates the slaughter of patriots in the streets of Madrid by Murat. This is a political holiday which appeals more strongly to the national character of the Spaniards than any other. The mingled pride of race and ignorant hate of everything foreign which constitutes that singular passion called Spanish patriotism, or Espanolismo, is fully called into play by the recollections of the terrible scenes of their war of independence, which drove out a foreign king, and brought back into Spain a native despot infinitely meaner and more injurious. It is an impressive study in national character and thought, this self-satisfaction of even liberal Spaniards at the reflection that, by a vast and supreme effort of the nation, after countless sacrifices and with the aid of coalesced Europe, they exchanged Joseph Bonaparte for Ferdinand VII. and the Inquisition. But the victims of the Dos de Mayo fell fighting. Daoiz, Velarde, and Ruiz were bayoneted at their guns, scorning surrender. The alcalde of Mostoles, a petty village of Castile, called on Spain to rise against the tyrant. And Spain obeyed the summons of this cross-roads justice. The contempt of probabilities, the Quixotism of these successive demonstrations, endear them to the Spanish heart.
Every 2d of May the city of Madrid gives up the day to funeral honors to the dead of 1808. The city government, attended by its Maceros, in their gorgeous robes of gold and scarlet, with silver maces and long white plumes; the public institutions of all grades, with invalids and veterans and charity children; a large detachment of the army and navy, - form a vast procession at the Town Hall, and, headed by the Supreme Government, march to slow music through the Puerta del Sol and the spacious Alcala street to the granite obelisk in the Prado which marks the resting-place of the patriot dead. I saw the regent of the kingdom, surrounded by his cabinet, sauntering all a summer's afternoon under a blazing sun over the dusty mile that separates the monument from the Ayuntamiento. The Spaniards are hopelessly inefficient in these matters. The people always fill the line of march, and a rivulet of procession meanders feebly through a wilderness of mob. It is fortunate that the crowd is more entertaining than the show.
The Church has a very indifferent part in this ceremonial. It does nothing more than celebrate a mass in the shade of the dark cypresses in the Place of Loyalty, and then leaves the field clear to the secular power. But this is the only purely civic ceremony I ever saw in Spain. The Church is lord of the holidays for the rest of the year.
In the middle of May comes the feast of the ploughboy patron of Madrid, - San Isidro. He was a true Madrileno in tastes, and spent his time lying in the summer shade or basking in the winter sunshine, seeing visions, while angels came down from heaven and did his farm chores for him. The angels are less amiable nowadays, but every true child of Madrid reveres the example and envies the success of the San Isidro method of doing business. In the process of years this lazy lout has become a great saint, and his bones have done more extensive and remarkable miracle-work than any equal amount of phosphate in existence. In desperate cases of sufficient rank the doctors throw up the sponge and send for Isidro's urn, and the drugging having ceased, the noble patient frequently recovers, and much honor and profit comes thereby to the shrine of the saint. There is something of the toady in Isidro's composition. You never hear of his curing any one of less than princely rank. I read in an old chronicle of Madrid, that once when Queen Isabel the Catholic was hunting in the hills that overlook the Manzanares, near what is now the oldest and quaintest quarter of the capital, she killed a bear of great size and ferocity; and doubtless thinking it might not be considered lady-like to have done it unassisted, she gave San Isidro the credit of the lucky blow and built him a nice new chapel for it near the Church of San Andres. If there are any doubters, let them go and see the chapel, as I did. When the allied armies of the Christian kings of Spain were seeking for a passage through the hills to the Plains of Tolosa, a shepherd appeared and led them straight to victory and endless fame. After the battle, which broke the Moorish power forever in Central Spain, instead of looking for the shepherd and paying him handsomely for his timely scout-service, they found it more pious and economical to say it was San Isidro in person who had kindly made himself flesh for this occasion. By the great altar in the Cathedral of Toledo stand side by side the statues of Alonso VIIL, the Christian commander, and San Isidro brazenly swelling in the shepherd garb of that unknown guide who led Alonso and his chivalry through the tangled defiles of the Sierra Morena.