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Carnival and Other Christian Festivals

Carnival and Other Christian Festivals

Max Harris
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  • Book Info
    Carnival and Other Christian Festivals
    Book Description:

    With a riotous mix of saints and devils, street theater and dancing, and music and fireworks, Christian festivals are some of the most lively and colorful spectacles that occur in Spain and its former European and American possessions. That these folk celebrations, with roots reaching back to medieval times, remain vibrant in the high-tech culture of the twenty-first century strongly suggests that they also provide an indispensable vehicle for expressing hopes, fears, and desires that people can articulate in no other way.

    In this book, Max Harris explores and develops principles for understanding the folk theology underlying patronal saints' day festivals, feasts of Corpus Christi, and Carnivals through a series of vivid, first-hand accounts of these festivities throughout Spain and in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad, Bolivia, and Belgium. Paying close attention to the signs encoded in folk performances, he finds in these festivals a folk theology of social justice that-however obscured by official rhetoric, by distracting theories of archaic origin, or by the performers' own need to mask their resistance to authority-is often in articulate and complex dialogue with the power structures that surround it. This discovery sheds important new light on the meanings of religious festivals celebrated from Belgium to Peru and on the sophisticated theatrical performances they embody.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79863-2
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. PART ONE: Days of Saints and Virgins

    • 1. Demons and Dragons (CATALONIA)
      (pp. 3-20)

      Fiery dragons and a clawed, bare-breasted serpent danced with devils, punctuating the night with fleeting visions of a world that we’ve been trained to think is hellish. Around the edges of the square, a crowd watched safely from behind a barrier of temporary metal railings. Where the circle of railings peeled back on itself, allowing devils guarded passage between an offstage alley and the square, I caught the eye of Marc Torras, the city’s archivist and pyrotechnician. He invited me inside the barrier.

      Squatting on the cobbled pavement, in the space of beasts and monsters, I could see more clearly:...

    • 2. Flowers for Saint Tony (ARAGON)
      (pp. 21-32)

      While working on the music for his ballet suiteThe Three-Cornered Hat, the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla visited the small Aragonese town of Fuendetodos (Zaragoza), where he was treated to a midday banquet in the town hall. Intending to honor both Falla and the musical traditions of the region, a diva in his party stepped outside onto the balcony and sang, with a skill honed on the concert stage, the Aragonesejotafrom Falla’sSeven Spanish Songs. The members of the packed crowd in the square below greeted her highbrow rendition of their popular music with puzzled silence. They...

    • 3. El Mas Chiquito de To’ Los Santos (PUERTO RICO)
      (pp. 33-48)

      Thanks to the pioneering work of the Puerto Rican scholar Ricardo Alegría and to the scale and exuberance of their processions, the Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol en Loíza (Festivals of Saint James the Apostle in Loíza) are among the best known patronal saints’ day celebrations in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Little devils with translucent colored bat wings, wielding sticks with paper bags that once were bladders, march in front of smaller saints whose size belies their status. Spanish knights in pale-faced masks wear paper flowers in their hats. Ancestral spirits harness skirted mules, while cross-dressed crazy women sweep the streets and...

    • 4. The Cross-Dressed Virgin on a Tightrope (MEXICO)
      (pp. 49-64)

      In december 1998, I was one of a reported six million pilgrims who visited the basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City to celebrate the annual feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe (12 December).¹ That’s more people than live in the entire country of Denmark, greater than the combined populations of Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago, and about equal to the population of Israel. Arguably, this densely packed fiesta exalts not one sacred woman but three.

      The basilica sits at the point where the northern causeway that once crossed Lake Texcoco from the Mexica (Aztec) island capital of Tenochtitlan...

    • 5. A Polka for the Sun and Santiago (MEXICO)
      (pp. 65-80)

      Two days later, my wife and I drove from Mexico City to San Luis Huexotla. Finding at first no sign of thesantiaguitoswhom we had seen at the basilica of Guadalupe, we parked our car in a quiet square beside the village’s colonial church, built in the mid-sixteenth century on the ruins of an old pyramidal temple. The church adjoins the small Franciscan convent to which Gerónimo de Mendieta retired in 1595 to write hisHistoria eclesiástica indiana. The convent was built over the old Aztec ceremonial plaza, erasing the sacred space of one religion with that of another....

  6. PART TWO: Corpus Christi

    • 6. Dancing under Friendly Fire (CATALONIA)
      (pp. 83-98)

      In 1565 the coventry draper’s guild paid an anonymous pyrotechnician fourpence for ‘‘setting the worlds on fire.’’ Three worlds, one at each performance, were consumed during the Doomsday play that the guild staged at the close of the city’s Corpus Christi cycle.¹ In late medieval Coventry, the world ended not with a whimper but with a spectacular bang.

      The story of how the festival of Corpus Christi developed into a time when worlds went up in flames is important both to the history of theater and to the understanding of folk theology. Since Corpus Christi grew out of the older...

    • 7. A Confraternity of Jews (CASTILE—LA MANCHA)
      (pp. 99-112)

      On a bitterly cold first Sunday of Lent, 12 February 1486, seven hundred fiftyconversos(Jewish converts to Christianity) ‘‘went in procession . . . bareheaded and unshod’’ through the streets of Toledo, then the capital of Spain. ‘‘Howling loudly and weeping and tearing out their hair,’’ according to a contemporary account, the penitentconversos—both men and women—stumbled ‘‘through the streets along which the Corpus Christi procession goes, until they came to the cathedral.’’ Their humiliation was watched by ‘‘a great number of spectators.’’ After a mass and sermon in the cathedral, each prisoner publicly acknowledged ‘‘all the...

    • 8. Saint Sebastian and the Blue-eyed Blacks (PERU)
      (pp. 113-136)

      For a few hours on Thursday morning, Corpus Christi in Cusco resembles its haughty peninsular cousin in Toledo more than it does its exuberant kin in Berga and Camuñas. But shortly after noon, the solemn pomp gives way to multiple patronal saints day festivals. Fifteen images of saints and virgins take to the streets, accompanied by dancers whose mockery of colonial pretensions invokes the spirit of Carnival. The miscegenation of festive traditions befits the celebration’s multiple ethnic referents, invoking the several heritages of Spain, the Incas, the rural Indians of the Amazon and the Andes, and the urban mestizos who...

  7. PART THREE: Carnivals

    • 9. A Scattering of Ants (GALICIA)
      (pp. 139-156)

      On 12 march 1445 the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris issued a letter to the bishops and chapters of France, deploring clerical behavior during seasonal festivities: ‘‘Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders, or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church, without...

    • 10. The Bandit and the Fat Man (NAVARRE)
      (pp. 157-172)

      A chill wind whipped through the main square of Bielsa (Aragon), buffeting the crowd with refrigerated air from the nearby Pyrenean peaks. Against the cold, a bonfire burned. Presiding over the festivities was Don Cornelio Zorrilla Carnaval (Cornelius Carnival the Drunk, Esquire), a life-sized effigy of clothed straw, also known asel muñeco(the doll). Cornelio had been hung from the central window of the porticoed town hall early that morning, flaunting a fully erect penis and a single gilded Christmas ball. Now, on Carnival Friday night 2001, he watched over a communal meal of pork grilled over the open...

    • 11. Safe for the Bourgeoisie (BELGIUM)
      (pp. 173-186)

      Not all carnivals engage directly with the Christian narrative and its seasonal rituals, but most invoke the opposing theory of Carnival’s link to pre-Christian rites. The motives for doing so vary. Spanish rural Carnivals invoke pagan antiquity as a sign of their moral distance from Franco’s Catholic triumphalism and as a proof of age and status. The great urban Carnivals of the Caribbean, such as that of Port of Spain (Trinidad), appropriate the precedent of classical Bacchanalia as a license for present excess. Some northern European Carnivals incline more to bourgeois respectability than to dissipation or religious challenge. Eschewing all...

    • 12. Devils and Decorum (TRINIDAD)
      (pp. 187-204)

      On my first day on the island of Trinidad, I was attacked by robbers, mesmerized by devils, and accused by an unwed mother of fathering her child. I had arrived in Port of Spain on Carnival Friday 1996, just in time for the old mas parade. While Binche summons the Romantic theory of rural pre-Christian ritual to dignify its Carnival, Trinidad invokes the classical precedent of Bacchanal to license Carnival excess. But like Binche’s more restrained revels, Port of Spain’s Carnival has a respectable purpose: it feeds the local economy, builds community, and diverts attention from a violent past. In...

    • 13. The Sins of the Carnival Virgin (BOLIVIA)
      (pp. 205-226)

      Oruro’S carnival faces some of the same problems as that of Port of Spain but in a very different climate and with stronger religious roots. Oruro squats high in the Bolivian altiplano, striking many travelers as ‘‘a mean, forbidding town, hugging the bare hillside,’’ where ‘‘all is grey monotony even in the noon sunlight of a bright winter day.’’¹ At 12,144 feet above sea level, Oruro can be bitterly cold at night even in the summer months. Lacking the encircling snowcapped mountain peaks of La Paz or the rich artistic heritage of colonial Potosí, it has little to offer the...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 227-252)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 253-270)
  10. Index
    (pp. 271-282)