Preparation for the Fiestas in honour of Our Lady of La Rábida, Sanlúcar’s village festival, started weeks ago. The local painter and decorator, with his army of local women, went from house to house, whitewashing walls and painting wooden doors and iron window grills. Each day housewives washed and brushed the footpaths outside their houses, and large maroon banners with the golden insignia of the Virgen de la Flores were hung from balconies. This little village of less than three hundred people was sparkling, ready for its holiest and most important feast of the year.
Here in Spain every town and village, and even in some cases neighbourhoods within towns, has its own feast day, celebrating its patron saint. In many cases, as here in Sanlúcar, the patron saint is the Blessed Virgen. The Feast of the Virgin of the Flowers, Our Lady of la Rábida, is celebrated each year in Sanlúcar on the first weekend after Easter Sunday.
On Easter Sunday morning (after our Easter egg hunt and Lily’s requested birthday breakfast of crêpes), the girls and I dressed in our best dresses and made our way up the hill to the beautiful village church. Unlike Christmas Day, when only a handful of old people attended Mass and all wore their everyday clothes, on Easter Sunday there was standing room only in the church and everyone, from the oldest grandfather to little Carla, born on New Year’s Day, were dressed in their finest outfits. The mums and dads I know from the school gate were virtually unrecognisable – the men smartly dressed in suits and the women in elegant dresses, their hair newly styled and their faces made up. I was glad the girls and I had made an effort too!
Behind the altar was the elaborate gold palanquin. The statue of the Virgin herself stood beside the altar. In the middle of Mass prayers were said in her honour and she was solemnly lifted onto the palanquin and her gold crown placed on her head. To the repeated cry of ‘Long live the Virgin, long live the mother of God, etc’, the congregation cried in unison ‘Viva’. Many in the church, including all the children, carried bunches of pink and white carnations which they (including Lily) brought to the altar to be placed at the feet of the Virgin.
In the days after Easter Sunday preparation in the village reached fever pitch. A large marquee was erected in the plaza with a bar, stage and seating for hundreds, and street vendors moved into the area near the dock, setting up gofre stands, shooting galleries and bouncy castles. As the streets were cleaned even more, each evening bangers were fired. We made our own preparations, dressing Carina in her complement of flags in readiness for the role we were to play in the fiesta.
On Friday evening, the fiesta began. At 9pm prayers were said in the church and at 11pm the marquee came to life with a band that played lively music until 4am. The 9pm prayers were accompanied by the firing of bangers and these continued to be fired at regular intervals for the next four days, a man always on duty on the slipway near the dock.
At 9am Saturday morning we (and everyone else in the village) were awoken by the loud firing of bangers and a brass band marching through the streets of the village playing lively music to get us all out of bed. The girls and I dressed in our best dresses again, and made our way to the church. Once again, there was standing room only, and if the congregation had looked good on Easter Sunday, they now looked even more spectacular and the church itself was decorated with masses of white roses and lilies.
A male dance troop, doing what in the UK would be called Morris dancing, danced from the plaza to the church, leading the way for the town dignitaries and the twenty women who had been responsible for the preparations for this year’s fiesta. Inside the church the Bishop of Huelva said Mass and afterwards the altar was removed and the pews moved to one side to make way for the most beautiful and memorable part of the fiesta.
The dancers, accompanied by a man simultaneously playing a drum and pipe, danced through the church, up and down the aisle, while another group of men prepared to carry the palanquin on a procession through the village. With perfect timing, they lifted her, five or six men on either side, swaying under the weight of the palanquin, and the procession began. Slowly down the steps of the church they went, confetti thrown down on from the bell tower, and hundreds processed through the town, the dancing men in front, the marching band behind, and cries of ‘Viva’ rising up.
During the Spanish Civil War, when many Catholic icons were destroyed, the Virgin was sent to Alcoutim, across the river, for safekeeping. To thank their Portuguese neighbours for protecting her during the war, each year when the procession reaches the river, the Virgin is turned towards Portugal. The brass band plays the Portuguese national anthem, bangers are fired, and the church in Alcoutim responds by ringing its church bell. It was now our time to contribute to the procession. With the other boats on the dock, Julian sounded Carina‘s fog horn long and loud, and fired one of our old flares. The procession then carried on through the village and returned to the church.
At 6pm the music started again in the marquee, three different bands playing music until 5.30am! Lily and Katie ran around with their friends, spending money at the various stands, while Julian and I enjoyed the festivities in the marquee, having a few drinks, taking to the dance floor and really having a good time.
At 9am the next morning we were once again awoken by the marching band and the bangers and the third day of the fiesta proceeded exactly like the second. I couldn’t persuade the girls to come to Mass with me, but they dressed up in yet more fine clothes and joined me for the procession afterwards. This time the adult dancers were joined by the village’s young boys, including all but one of Lily’s male classmates. Julian once again stayed on board to perform his duties when the Virgin faced the river. Mass on Sunday morning was beautiful, with a choir from Isla Cristina making it all the more emotional and special. In the evening we once again made our way to the marquee and when the girls grew too tired to stay any longer, Julian took them home to bed and I carried on, dancing and perhaps drinking a little too much (so much for that New Year’s resolution, eh?!).
By Sunday evening most of the out of town visitors had left, as only those of us who live here could enjoy a public holiday the next day. Monday dawned wet and windy. At 9am, yet again, the bangers and marching band woke us. Still in my pajamas I made the dessert I had been planning to make for the past two days. But it had to be done now, because Monday was the day of the village feast.
Because of the rain, Monday’s after-Mass procession had to be cancelled. But what happened instead was perhaps even more intense and emotional that if we had processed through the streets. When Mass ended the altar and pews were once again cleared away. The boy dance troupe took to the floor, dancing up and down the church. The brass band played. The local flamenco choir sang hymns. And the men carried the palanquin up and down the church, standing in place, swaying her from side to side. I looked around and realised that many many people were crying. Old and young, men and women, weeping openly as the religious part of the fiesta reached its conclusion.
In the pouring rain we dashed to the marquee for the village dinner. There was barely seating room for all. We were served delicious plates of chickpea and chorizo casserole and we drank heartily. Everyone in the village contributes financially to the organisation of the fiesta. But as the extranjeros – the foreigners – cannot do so, so each year our contribution to the fiesta is the preparation of desserts for the village feast. Along with some of the other foreign women I had made desserts and after the meal we brought these in on plates and served them to our Spanish neighbours, amid loud applause. And then it was time for more music and dancing.
By the time Monday night rolled around we were exhausted and very glad that the girls had Tuesday off school too. We spent Tuesday recovering and reminiscing about the incredible few days we had just experienced.