Monday, August 22, 2011

Count The Branches

“Count the Branches" is a game they play in Spain.

A beautiful woman finds a soft spot under an orange tree and lies down on her back. She must try to count all the branches of the tree and she must count out loud... "uno, dos, tres," ... in the meantime her handsome lover must get busy under her skirt. If he makes her lose count before she reaches the top branch of the tree, he wins and they may play again. On the other hand, if she reaches the top of the tree and has counted every branch, he loses. The beautiful woman must then say " adios" to the man and go in search of a more talented opponent. It is a very old game.

The Catholics banned "Count the Branches" for many years, but when the Cortes party came to power they tossed out the Jesuits and again legalized the game. As a matter of historic interest, there is a large park in Madrid where in spring there blooms a huge orange tree (they cover this tree in the winter to prevent it from freezing). This tree was transplanted more than a hundred years ago from the town of Seville. It was brought to Madrid with a team of 150 Belgium horses gifted to the crown by King Leopold I and planted in the park at the request of Queen Isabella II (1830-1904).

Isabella II had been installed as Queen of the Spanish throne at the age of thirteen. In order to keep the French happy, and they have always been a tough bunch to keep happy, Spain's court dignitaries decided that Isabella should marry her cousin Prince Fernando, a very snappy dresser much loved by both the French and Spanish people. In a cruel twist of fate it was soon revealed that Fernando wasn't quite the man Isabella had expected. Night after night, when the candles of the royal nuptial chamber were extinguished, the only sound to be heard by the Queen's late shift attendants was the rhythmic, sedative like snoring of her young Prince. It was not that Isabella wasn't attractive. Compared to ladies of the royal Hapsburg clan, she was down right stunning. No, it was just that Fernando was born to prefer the leotard leggings and gallant military dress of the male conquistador. Chicks just didn't do it for him.

In need of an heir, the Queen decided that a little orange branch counting might be just what the doctor ordered. After all, she had not yet given up on Fernando. He still was a dashing young man; she admired his penchant for fine perfume and they had spent some wonderful afternoons comparing the weaves of exotic clothing in the many shops and open-air markets of their lovely city. The Queen, who was not one for searching out dark clouds, preferred to think of Fernando as...well… just a sleepy young bull. And nothing could be better than a good competitive game of "Count The Branches" to put a little life back in the lad. Aware that her dreamy-eyed husband might need more time than most to make her lose count of the branches, Isabella ordered the largest orange tree in Seville to be brought to Madrid and placed in the park outside the Royal Palace.

On a glorious spring day, after the tree had firmly taken root, the Queen challenged Fernando to a match of C.T.B. and off to the park they went. Many hours passed. Finally, looking exhausted and forlorn, Issy (as her close friends liked to call her) and Fernando returned to the Royal chambers. Soon everyone in Madrid knew. There were exactly 632 branches on the orange tree that had come from Seville. 

Now, since Isabella was the Queen of Spain and there were many political alliances to consider, she decided that she could not say "adios" to Fernando. Sure he had lost but there was the country to consider and beside, she loved when they did their nails together. So Fernando remained her husband. Fortunately, as royal lineage goes, the House Guard, emboldened by the Queen’s victory, covertly challenged his boss to a match a few days later. As you can imagine, Madrid's ruling champion of "Count the Branches" (a title no girl really wanted to hold) graciously accepted.

To this day, there is a city holiday celebrating the outcome of that sporting event. It is said that on a brilliant April morning in 1848 loyal Spanish subjects through out Madrid heard their beloved Queen Isabella scream "qui, qui, qui…iiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnceeeeee!” At first, many thought the Queen was calling for her favorite court cat Quincy, but then they realized that she had actually reached the fifteenth branch of her orange tree and could count no higher.

The House Guard had won! To the nation’s jubilation, an heir to the throne named Alfonso was to follow some nine months later (Isabella bore many children, but none were thought to be Fernando's.).

So now, every April, on the 15th day of the month, the Spaniards of Madrid pop their corks and let the wine flow...its "Count The Branches Day*!"

*The Queen vs, Guard match was one of many that Isabella would play during her reign. The date of the first “Count the Branches” challenge is actually thought to taken place on the twenty-first of April but for obvious reasons, the 15th became the official day of celebration.

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