On November 1, many Catalans gather to celebrate the Castanyada and All Saints’ Day, by coming together with friends and family to roast chestnuts and sweet potatoes, to bake panellets, a bite-sized almond cookie covered with pine nuts, coconut, or chocolate, and to drink muscatel wine. But since 2015, in St. Esteve in the Vall d’en Bas region, this annual celebration has been redefined as the Night of Fear, an event designed to hold children’s interest in the traditional celebration. By adding a new component to All Saints’ Day, this village of 1,400 residents has combined tradition and innovation.
“The credit of the Night of Fear must be attributed to a group of mothers with little capital but a lot of creativity,” says Alícia Caritg, the first president of the Mum’s, the mothers’ association.
In the years prior to 2015, Alícia and her friend Gemma Plana noticed a pattern. Their children consistently made plans to meet on the night of October 31 go trick-or-treating, like they do in the United States for Halloween. This is what prompted these mothers to innovate.
At first, there was some resistance to the idea of altering the All Saints’ Day celebrations. Rosa Sinyol, current president of the Mum’s, remembers being very clear about not wanting Halloween to replace the traditional Castanyada celebration. So, the Mum’s proposed was to create a new tradition altogether, one that brought together the traditional chestnuts and sweet potatoes with the childhood delights of Halloween.
The association’s first goal was to find “ways to get moms of the Vall d’en Bas to hang out and enjoy some time together,” according to Anna Fonolleda, another founding member of the Mum’s. They soon realized that it was difficult to participate in the activities they had planned without their children. So, they added a second goal: to organize activities for families instead. By 2019, most of the Mum’s activities had gone further to become annual events that energize the entire town.
With the Night of Fear, the Mum’s take advantage of the natural environment and urban architecture of the historic center of St. Esteve d’en Bas to design a magical, mysterious, and frightening route for kids. Along the way, they find scary characters or magical creatures that tell them stories, or make them solve riddles and puzzles. On the corner of St. Esteve Street, for example, the living dead keep the children from continuing on their way. The kids’ goal is to beat the forces of evil and win a reward: a bag of candy, a bag of chestnuts, and a sip of cordial, or ratafia, for the adults.
Autumn Traditions in Catalonia
In European and Latin American countries, All Saints’ Day is celebrated on November 1 and the Day of the Dead on November 2. In Catalonia, families typically went to morning mass on both days. They commonly brought along a flat bread, or coca, to blessed, which then was eaten by the entire family. In the evening, they would listen to a sermon and sing from the Goigs, Joy Poems dedicated to the saints.
The holidays coincide with the Castanyada, or the Catalan Chestnut Fest. Schools all over the country pause their regular lessons and teach the pupils the recipe for panelletsand how to eat roasted chestnuts.
In the bigger cities, explains folklorist Joan Amades, the tradition of the Chestnut Roaster, or Castanyera, started around the nineteenth century. This person, generally an elderly woman of humble background, spent the cold autumn days roasting chestnuts and sweet potatoes to sell and to keep warm. Chestnut Roasters are thought to have worn a loose-fitting hemp skirt and a woolen apron. They announced their goods with a song: “Hot and fat: who wants some, now that they are warm and toasty?” Little children who wanted to upset a Chestnut Roaster would sing a response song to tease her: “Little and bad, out of eight, seven are smelly!”
“The Sunday before, we went on hikes to gather chestnuts,” recalls Teia Buxó, a resident of St. Esteve d’en Bas. “On the evening of November 1, All Saints’ Day, we would roast them. We’d also boil some and then add them to the dough of the panellets, which we ate with muscatel wine. We—my parents, Grandma Dorotea, and some neighbors—also prayed three parts of the rosary.”
In contrast, Carme Boix of St. Privat, recalls, not without a dose of nostalgia, the activity of shucking corn. For her, November 1 marked the end of the harvest. “People used to help each other out a lot. We took turns shucking the corn we’d harvested. One evening, the neighbors would come to our place; on another, we went to theirs, until everybody’s harvest was completely shucked. It was quite beautiful.” For her, shucking corncobs was a rare opportunity to spend a long evening with friends and in the midst of laughter.
Every town of the Vall d’en Bas organizes some kind of event for All Saints’ Day. In Hostalets d’en Bas, the event committee, in an effort to maintain the ties with the corn and their traditions, organizes a shucking competition as well as a public chestnut roasting event.
A Modern Twist
Since the Mum’s started the Night of Fear, the number of people visiting St. Esteve d’en Bas has steadily increased. In 2019, about 620 children and parents came to walk the route. The whole town participates: Comas, the village’s antique shop, lends furniture to decorate corners and streets; Antònia, the bookstore owner, sells the tickets; some sixty neighbors saw, stitch, build, and assemble the sets that decorate the plazas and alleys, as well as wrap the gifts that the children and families receive as a token for participating.
But the social network that makes the Night of Fear possible goes well beyond St. Esteve d’en Bas. The Mum’s have involved the organizers of the International Fair of Witchcraft of Sant Joan les Fonts and the Excalibur Fair of Besalú, which lend costumes for the magical and scary characters of the Night of Fear.
The kids continue to grow up, however, and the Mums know that if they simply maintain the event as is, the children will tire of it as they grow older. So far, the Mum’s unrelenting creativity has outpaced the kids’ growth. They are thinking ahead. They know that eventually they will have to raise the element of fear so that it will continue to interest the teenagers in the town. In 2019, there was a new route for ten-year-olds and up. The characters on the route proposed fewer riddles but gave more scares so that there would be enough adrenaline flow for them to remain excited.
In 2020, the sanitary and security measures necessary to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic demand that the Night of Fear is canceled. Last year the organizers welcomed more than 600 visitors, in groups of ten children along with their parents; this year, the groups would have to be limited to six. While they don’t question the sanitary measures, they don’t want to exclude 500 kids and their families. If there is an event, Rosa Sinyol says, it will be a symbolic reminder, but it won’t be what it has been.
While the landscape may be stained with the yellows, reds, and browns of the oaks and beeches, and though one can find chestnuts and sweet potatoes in the stores, St. Esteve d’en Bas is not busy preparing for the communal celebrations of autumn. No doubt the residents look forward to the day they can again bring together all the basic ingredients to sustain community: a shared festive social connection.
Marta Ayala i Rovira is an anthropologist who has lived in St. Esteve d’en Bas since 2014. She serves as a member of the advisory board that supports the cultural sustainability work of the SomVallBas project and also conducted fieldwork in 2019.