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Huesos de santo: Could they really drive skeletons mad?


by Jack Wright

All Saints Day, All Souls Day. The lines are blurred. You could hardly tell one from the other. That’s because both holidays are about commemorating the dead.

A day for all departed saints, keeping in mind that some saints had not been canonized and therefore had no feast day assigned to them, was established by Pope Boniface IV on 13 May 609 AD.  This day would eventually be called All Saints Day, as is known today. However, it was Pope Gregory III (731-741 AD) who moved the feast to 1 November, hoping to steal the thunder from the pagan celebrations of the ancient Celtic New Year, Samhain, which falls on 1 November. Samhain is, ironically, responsible for what is now the Halloween festival and that includes All Saints and Souls Days! So, did, Gregory III succeed in eclipsing the Gaelic? It depends on how one looks at it, surely.

A neopagan celebrating Samhain, 31 October 2021

All Saints Day would remind Roman Catholics and those of the other Christian denominations, that those who led saintly lives on earth are now reunited with God in heaven.

In contrast, All Souls Day, which is celebrated on 2 November, is a call to prayer for the souls of those who are still in purgatory. That’s just the basic, of course. For in remembering one’s dear departed – which, in practice, makes no difference whether the deceased is in heaven or in purgatory – one doesn’t just pray. One lights candles and brings flowers to burial sites. And that’s the prelude to a sumptuous party. There, in the dark cemetery lighted dramatically with candles, the hot smell of melting wax fusing tantalizingly with scents of chrysanthemums, marigolds, roses and dahlias, friends and families gather, a spread of sweets laid out on the table waiting for them at home.

Candles and flowers for the dead: prelude to a feast of sumptuous spread laid out on tables

Spaniards aren’t about to drop the tradition of connecting with the dead through food. And despite the onslaught of jack-o-lantern type of Halloween, they’d rather have their good old sweets except in vulnerable cities like Madrid that can’t help succumbing to treat-or-trick candies bought by the kilo.

Among the most popular All Saints/Souls Day delicacies in Spain are the

Buñuelos with chocolate

>Bunuelos. The ball- or disc-shaped buñuelos are a simple wheat-based dough, often flavored with anise, fried and finished off with a sweet topping. They’re best with coffee or chocolate beverage for breakfast, as dessert at lunch, or as snacks. The Moriscos  (Muslims converted to Catholicism during the Reconquista) are believed to have been the first consumers of the fritter.

Buñuelos may be filled with a variety of stuffings according to regional tastes and traditions. They’re out there all year round but their popularity is heightened during regional holidays such as the Fallas in Valencia, as well as the celebration of All Saints/Souls Days and Lent across the country. In Madrid and Andalusia, buñuelos are at their most popular during All Saints/Souls Days and feasts of saints.

Panalllets with different ingredients. The one rolled in pine nuts, top left, is the most popular of the panallets.

>Panallets, Catalan for little bread. Panallets are spherical marzipans whose most popular version is the one rolled in pine nut and varnished with egg. In Seville, down south of Spain, the panallets are known as empiñonados, from the word piñon, i.e., pine nut.

A derivative of the panallet is the castañada, castanyada in Catalonia, Andorra, Ibiza and the Valencia. The castañada is chestnut-based panalett. In its simplest form, the castañada is simply roasted chestnut usually sold in the plaza by the castañera, an iconic vendor clad in old thick clothes to ward off the low temperatures.

>Huesos de santo or saint’s bones. This should top the list of the macabre delicacies. Feasting on the bones of the saint smacks of cannibalism, doesn’t it?

Some enterprising bakeshops put the “bones” in containers that mimic reliquaries. (Photo: real reliquary)

But they’re really just good old sweets. In their most classic, these white marzipan tubes simulating bones are stuffed with the Spanish yema, egg yolk cream, for the bone marrow inside. Nowadays, though, they come in different colors and other popular fillings.

Some enterprising bakeshops display the “bones” appropriately in “reliquaries”.

Speaking of bakeshops, one might want to just shop for huesos de santo since doing it yourself takes time. You need two to three days to dry the marzipan.

But if you’re set on homemade, you’ll find good recipes on the internet, such as this one  and this.


Featured image: Skeletons/Paul Brenna, Pixabay. Huesos de Santo/Aristosteles, CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Neopagan Samhain, author unknown ( https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/samhain ), CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Candles/Samueles Schirò; Chrysanthemums/Shirley 810. Both from Pixabay
Buñuelos/Carquinyol, CC BY-SA2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Panallets/Manuel C., CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Reliquary/virtusincertus, CC BY2.0 via Flickr


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