A number of reasons make Chile’s fiestas patrias a truly one of a kind event. Every danced cueca, every cup of terremoto or pisco being drunk, and every sopaipilla that will be eaten contribute to make the yearly dieciocho an unforgettable festivity for anyone from or in Chilean territory.
The uniqueness of the festive days, literally translated as Native Land Holiday, is characterized not
only by how it is celebrated, but also by what is being celebrated and how it came to be. One of the many ways to try and understand why Chile celebrates the way that it does, and what this reveals about the Chilean person is to look at the way the holiday was established in the first place.
Every other country in the region celebrates its independence day with a national holiday, more or less equal in importance to Chile’s Fiestas Patrias, however Chile’s independence was signed February 12, 1818 and there is no sort of remembrance that date, let alone a national holiday. So, what is
celebrated on September 18 every year in Chile?
Napoleon and seperatist movements
On September 18 1810, eight years before Chile achieved its independence, the First National Congress was established. The Spanish king at the time, Ferdinand VII, was exiled by Napoleon. Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleons brother, was put as head of state. These facts broke down the communications between the crown and its colonies. Clearly the situation had its repercussions in the colonies, where separatist movements started to gain strength all throughout the region. The crown then had the need to retain its power and the way to do so was the creation of national congresses that pledged their loyalty to the crown.
Mateo de Toro-Zambrano, governor of Chile, called a council, which for the first time included the general population, to pledge the colony’s loyalty to the crown. The September 18 movement was in no way an attempt at gaining independence. However, most Chileans who are aware of this argue that even if
the festivities aren’t aligned with Independence Day, what is remembered each September 18 is not the pledge of loyalty to imperialist Spain, rather the beginning of a long process that lead to the independence act, being signed in Concepción on February 12, 1818.
September 18 as third choice
Even though nowadays February 12 goes by as any other day, with no remembrance or event happening, it wasn’t always like this. For many decades Chile had three festive days to commemorate three distinct key moments in the battle for independence. The first was September 18, 1810 and the creation of the First National Congress, the second was February 12, 1818 and the signing of independence, and the third was April 5, 1818, the battle of Maipú, where separatist movements crushed royalists in battle confirming their recently signed independence act.
Having three festivities was costly and thus considered excess and throughout the rest of the 1800’s many presidents chose one or another, or a combination, of these three dates to celebrate Chile’s independence. Although there was no official decree until 1915, president José Joaquín Prieto was the first to gather all festivities on the September 18 th .
According to historian Cristián Medina, due to the proximity of February 12 to the begging of Lent (the influence of Catholic faith and religion at the time was undeniable), the religious mood was thought not to align with the celebratory mood a festivity of such magnitude would bring. In a similar was, April 5 th is too
close to Easter week, so the celebrations were already being pushed towards the end of the month. This only left September 18 th available. In addition, this date is close to the beginning of spring so the weather conditions are more likely to be favourable.
The conclusions to be drawn are endless and depend upon the lens with which history is observed. Although this probably won’t be everybody’s favourite topic at a fonda, looking into the past to understand the present is always a great experience which can definitely help enrich anyone’s celebrations these Fiestas Patrias.
Nicolás is a Bolivian social communications student. He currently lives in Santiago while he attends Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He has contributed on a number of Bolivian newspapers and also on many online magazines.