Carnival and Other Christian Festivals

[ Latin American Studies ]

Carnival and Other Christian Festivals

Folk Theology and Folk Performance

By Max Harris

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.



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6 x 9 | 304 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70191-5

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.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Part One: Days of Saints and Virgins
    • 1. Demons and Dragons (Catalonia)
    • 2. Flowers for Saint Tony (Aragon)
    • 3. El Mas Chiquito de To' Los Santos (Puerto Rico)
    • 4. The Cross-Dressed Virgin on a Tightrope (Mexico)
    • 5. A Polka for the Sun and Santiago (Mexico)
  • Part Two: Corpus Christi
    • 6. Dancing under Friendly Fire (Catalonia)
    • 7. A Confraternity of Jews (Castile-La Mancha)
    • 8. Saint Sebastian and the Blue-eyed Blacks (Peru)
  • Part Three: Carnivals
    • 9. A Scattering of Ants (Galicia)
    • 10. The Bandit and the Fat Man (Navarre)
    • 11. Safe for the Bourgeoisie (Belgium)
    • 12. Devils and Decorum (Trinidad)
    • 13. The Sins of the Carnival Virgin (Bolivia)
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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: masked demons, dressed in fiery red and yellow suits, with fireworks in their hands and on their heads; winged, fire-breathing dragons, papier-mâché monsters each borne by a single man whose legs and feet alone were visible; the serpent, fanged and red-eyed, her flesh and breasts the pallid green of slime, likewise hefted by a single bearer. A long-necked giant mule, made of olive cloth stretched over a wooden frame, requiring several men to carry it, dropped its neck and, spinning, scattered a vicious circle of sparks. A bare-chested man in furred trousers and a bearded mask, topped with high, curving mountain goat's horns, briefly had the arena to himself. A flute played. Pan spoke to us, his voice amplified by loudspeakers. Most spectacular of all the monsters was the ox, a whirling, fire-spitting beast designed by Torras from two bulky pieces of an old ribbon-making loom, itself known as an "ox." The bearer's legs could just be seen amid the ambient flashes of light and thick clouds of smoke (Fig. 1.1).

Rockets shot into the air from the roof of the town hall. The smell of explosives was pervasive. When at last the show was over, the barriers were removed and the audience pressed into the heart of the square, now illuminated by streetlights. Devils, women, men, and children linked arms to dance in one big counterclockwise whirlpool to the joyous music of a band.

I was in Manresa, in the foothills of the Pyrenees above Barcelona, for the city's annual festa major (major feast day). What I had seen, that Saturday evening, was the mostra del corre foc (preview of the fire-running), a preliminary display of the pyrotechnics that would be unleashed in full force on Monday night, when devils and monsters would run through the city streets, no longer separated by barriers from onlookers but licensed to attack. Posted notices warned citizens to board their windows and to remove their cars from streets that lay along the route of the fire-running.

Manresa's festa major is celebrated on the last weekend of August, within a day or two of the city's patronal saints' day. Manresa has three patron saints, Agnès, Fruitós, and Maurici, jointly known as els Cossos Sants (the Holy Corpses). The relics of these Roman martyrs were transferred to the city's new cathedral from the neighboring parish of Sant Fruitós de Bages, where they had been languishing in relative neglect, on 30 August 1372. In 1431 Manresa's guild of wool dressers, weavers, and tailors were given permission to celebrate the anniversary of that date with "dances, games [or plays], illuminations and other things that may occur to them to solemnize the festival." Given the sponsoring guild, we can assume they wore elaborate costumes.

The "illuminations [luminarias]" may only have been decorative lights or processional candles, but "a great snake [culebra] ... blowing great flames of fire from its mouth" had fought "many armed men" in royal festivities in Zaragoza as early as 1399. Pyrotechnics (to simulate artillery) and a firebreathing griffin as large as a horse had appeared in the same venue in 1414. Demons and dragons were part of Barcelona's Corpus Christi procession by 1424, and during the same period, "little mortars and bombs" were being detonated for Corpus Christi in Manresa.' Given the conjunction of "illuminations" with "games" (jocs), it is tempting to think that light was partially provided, in this first of Manresa's festes majors, by fireworks and fiery monsters.

Until recently, the relics of the Cossos Sants were still borne through the city streets in an annual religious procession, preceded by the same spectacular figures that for years had led the consecrated host in the city's Corpus Christi procession. Among the traditional Catalan Corpus Christi and patronal saints' day figures recorded in Manresa are Saint Michael and a dozen adversarial devils; a winged, black, fire-breathing dragon; an "ox of fire" (bou de foc); and a giant mule (mulassa). All these, with the exception of Saint Michael, carried pyrotechnics. Additional fireworks were discharged along the route. Other traditional figures, of a less explosive nature, were a large, papier-mâché eagle, originally representing Saint John the Evangelist; giants, at first on stilts but later carried by an actor inside a huge wooden frame draped with oversized robes; dwarfs, with large papier-mâché heads; skirted hobbyhorses; and stick dancers. No visibly female dragon or serpent (víbria) appears in the Manresa records, but she is well documented elsewhere in Catalonia.

The last procession of the holy relics through Manresa was in 1966. The Corpus Christi procession, first held in 1322, ground to a similar halt in 1978. The correfoc was introduced in 1982. I was there in 1995, when the only religious activity to commemorate the proximity of the patronal saints' day was a Sunday morning mass in the cathedral. Afterwards, the giants, dwarfs, and hobbyhorses joined the devils and the fiery monsters in a profane parade that led the worshipers away from the cathedral to the square, where castellers (human towers of acrobats) competed (Fig. 1.2). At night on Saturday and Monday, infernal pyrotechnics reigned unchallenged. The relics of the saints stayed safely in the crypt of the cathedral.

Seated by the ox a few days earlier, its strings of fireworks still draped loosely on its back, Torras had explained to me the transformation of a procession of relics into an exaltation of demons and dragons. There had been, he said, "a change in the attitude of the people, a lessening of faith. People simply stopped coming out for the procession or they'd arrange to be away on vacation during the festa major." Televisions and cars had compounded the problem. Before television, outdoor festivals had been the only entertainment. Now people had slick, fast-paced entertainment beamed into their homes. "And everybody has a car now. It's so much easier to leave town for the beach."

Secular modernization was not the only reason. Like most of Catalonia, in the political turmoil that preceded the Spanish Civil War, Manresa had been decidedly left-wing. After the municipal elections of April 1931, Manresa declared its allegiance to an independent Catalan Republic. In January 1932 miners and other workers briefly flew the black-and-red flag of the anarchist worker's party, the National Confederation of Labor (CNT), over the occupied town hall. Four years later, in February 1936, Manresa voted for the victorious left-wing Popular Front. When General Francisco Franco launched his military coup to save the conservative Catholic soul of Spain, anticlerical mobs in Manresa destroyed several churches and convents, barely sparing the cathedral. Catalonia chafed bitterly under Franco's subsequent regime, which was characterized by a fervent Catholic triumphalism and a repressive opposition to regional autonomy. Franco's death in 1975 prompted a joyous resurgence of Catalan language and culture. I asked Torras whether the transformation of Manresa's festa major was a part of this reaction.

"Under Franco," he said, "attendance at Catholic holidays was obligatory and much Catalan folklore was banned. People avoided the religious processions if they could and, once they were no longer mandatory, ignored them. After the processions disappeared, we tried to revitalize the festa with profane elements that belong to Catalonia. Now, although some still go on vacation at the end of August, more are staying." Manresa's festive license of demons and dragons is no celebration of darkness. If Franco claimed the mantle of Catholic light, then to party as Catalan devils is a happy celebration of freedom.

Demons and dragons are a customary feature of saints' days and Corpus Christi festivals throughout Spain and its former empire. They are also common in Carnivals. Indeed, it is partly because of the presence of demons, dragons, and other masked transgressive figures that Carnival has been so often designated—by defenders and detractors alike—as a pagan or devilish season, a time of unrestrained indulgence before the ascetic penances of Lent.

Julio Caro Baroja, the father of Spanish Carnival studies, scorned the antiquarian notion that the masked figures and seasonal inversions of Carnival were "a mere survival" of ancient pagan rituals. Carnival, he argued, was first nurtured by the dualistic oppositions of Christianity. Where it survives—for when he wrote it had been banned in Spain by Franco—it still enacts those old antagonisms. "Carnival," he concluded, "is the representation of paganism itself face-to-face with Christianity."

This view, often stated less sympathetically, is not exclusive to Roman Catholic countries, nor to those in which Carnival has faced recent governmental opposition. In Earl Lovelace's novel Salt, one of the characters claims to speak for Trinidad's fundamentalist Protestant community when, "fresh from an evangelical crusade across the island, [he] appeared on television condemning Carnival as devil worship and calling on all true Christians to keep their distance from it if they did not want to put their souls in peril." Trinidad's Carnival receives lavish government funding and features costumed devils by the tens of thousands.

It is harder than it might seem, however, to draw a clear dividing line between such "Christian" festivals as Corpus Christi and patronal saints' days, on the one hand, and such "pagan" festivals as Carnival, on the other hand. A shared repertoire of masked characters and dramatic narratives and a common festive inclination to enact disorder makes for greater similarity than difference. Peter Burke, one of the more lucid historians of popular culture, has proposed that "there is a sense in which every festival [in early modern Europe] was a miniature Carnival because it was an excuse for disorder and because it drew from the same repertoire of traditional forms."

Indeed, one of the ironies of festival studies is that a patronal saint's day whose official rhetoric is pious may in some respects be less constrained than a Carnival whose public rhetoric invokes the excesses of a pagan Bacchanal. Precisely because it claims to oppose civil and ecclesiastical authority, Carnival invites more determined diversion by those authorities (and their commercial backers) into nonthreatening channels than do patronal saints' days and such overtly religious and even triumphalist festivals as Corpus Christi. The latter, precisely because they claim to uphold official hierarchies, are sometimes freer to oppose them.

Sometimes, too, Carnivals and saints' days merge. In Oruro, Bolivia, devotion to the Virgen del Socavón (Virgin of the Mineshaft) migrated from the fixed festival of Candlemas (2 February) to the movable feast of Carnival. By delaying their public devotion to the Virgin until the four-day holiday before Ash Wednesday, Oruro's miners were able to enjoy a longer fiesta than if they had confined it to a single saint's day." During Oruro's Carnival, thousands of devils dance through the streets before unmasking in the Sanctuary of the Mineshaft to express their devotion to the Virgin.

Evidently, the festive connotation of devils is not always demonic. In Manresa, the demons and dragons celebrate the restoration of liberty after a brutal civil war and subsequent dictatorship. In Oruro, as we shall see, the masked devils protest exploitation of indigenous miners by external forces and devote themselves to a Virgin who blesses the poor and marginalized. Festive disorder generally dreams not of anarchy but of a more egalitarian social order.

A further blurring of distinctions between "Christian" and "pagan" festivals arises if we grant the possibility, as Burke does, that Carnival may be better understood in relation to the Christmas season that begins it than to the Lenten season that displaces it. In many places the Carnival season still begins, as it has for centuries, in late December or early January. Tourists may not arrive until the last few days before Carnival Tuesday, but locals have been engaged in private preparations and escalating public merriment for several weeks by then.

Christmas itself was once marked by ceremonies of inversion. The Feast of Fools, widespread in medieval Europe, was traditionally associated with the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December. Burke summarizes: "During the Feast of Fools a bishop or abbot of the fools would be elected, there would be dancing in the church and in the streets, the usual procession, and a mock mass in which the clergy wore masks or women's clothes or put their vestments on back to front, held the missal upside down, played cards, ate sausages, sang bawdy songs, and cursed the congregation instead of blessing them." (I am assured by friends in Catalonia that a boy bishop ceremony is still discreetly celebrated each year, on the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, some ten miles south of Manresa in the Monastery of Monsterrat. Marta Ibañez writes, "It is a remnant of the festivals of inversion, typical of the winter season, that culminate in Carnival.")" The reversal of hierarchies had an explicit theological justification. "Its legitimation," Burke explains, "was a line from the Magnificat, Deposuit potentes de sedes et exaltavit humiles; He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble.""

The words, according to the Gospel of Luke, were first spoken by Mary in celebration of the coming birth of Christ (Luke 1:52). Burke points out that the whole Christmas season was once "treated as carnivalesque, appropriately enough from a Christian point of view, since the birth of the Son of God in a manger was a spectacular example of the world turned upside down." The gradual dissociation of Carnival from Christmas, its confinement by the authorities—wherever possible—to the few days before Lent, and its demonization as a survival of pre-Christian pagan seasonal rites were the consequence of many forces, including the Renaissance penchant for imitating Roman festive practices, the sixteenth-century Reformation of the churches, the rise of a fastidious bourgeoisie, and the Romantic inclination to find pre-Christian seasonal rituals in peasant customs everywhere. It is a process that Burke calls "the triumph of Lent.""

We will return to the battle between the forces of Lent and those of Carnival later. For now, I simply want to observe that things are not always as they seem in festive celebrations. Carnival, condemned by the fundamentalist Caribbean preacher as "devil worship," may have its roots in the doctrine of the Incarnation. The festivities of Corpus Christi and patronal saints' days may, in some respects, be less restrained than Carnival. And all three provide a festive space for demons and dragons that may be symbols not of evil but of freedom.

The deliberate ambiguity of festive folk theater warrants careful attention. In an earlier book, I studied the widespread tradition of moros y cristianos ([mock battles of] Moors and Christians) in the light of James Scott's distinction between public and hidden transcripts. In the relationship between dominant and subordinate groups, the public transcript is what each may say and do in the presence of the other. The hidden transcripts of each side are what each may say and do in the absence of the other. Of particular interest to the student of folk theater are "the manifold strategies by which subordinate groups manage to insinuate their resistance, in disguised forms, into the public transcript." The public transcript of Mexican mock battles between Moors and Christians is ordinarily the triumph of pale-skinned Catholics over dark-skinned heathens. This victory explains the early introduction of the theme to Mexico by the conquistadors. The hidden transcript is often that of reconquest: the expulsion of invading foreigners by the native owners of the land. This eviction explains the widespread adoption of the tradition by the indigenous peoples of Mexico: as Spanish Catholics drove out Moors, so might Mexican Indians drive out Spaniards.

The hidden transcript can be variously signaled. The dancers' masks may be reversed so that the Christian warriors have dark skin and the heathen villains have beards and rosy cheeks; the victorious Christian troops may be identified as Aztecs by decorative emblems sewn into their costumes; or the marginal actions of the "clowns" may undermine the scripted Spanish victory. While the public transcript may be safely recorded in a prescribed text, the hidden transcript generally finds expression only in signs visible in performance.

Danzas (dances) and fiestas of Moors and Christians are not attached to any particular season of the year. I have seen them on patronal saints' days, at Corpus Christi, and during Carnival. One of my goals in this book is to apply the heuristic principle of public and hidden transcripts more broadly to the folk theater of these three festivals. It is not a matter of bringing prescriptive theory to the understanding of fiestas. The fiestas themselves take precedence over theory, but Scott's distinction helps me better explain what many years of participant observation of fiestas have taught me. In terms of methodology, for example, I have learned to pay more heed to the dramatic action of a fiesta and to the casual remarks of performers and audience than to the standard explanations offered to (and by) clergy, government agents, anthropologists, and other outsiders. I have learned to look for those details of performance that are quietly at odds with the public transcript, for it is amid these dissonances—just because they are apt to be regarded as innocuous, garbled, or irrelevant by scholars and others in authority—that folk performers are most likely to insinuate their hidden transcript into the public square.

But Scott's insight alone does not explain how—to use another phrase from my earlier book—I "read the mask" of a fiesta. Several other insights have helped me place my observation of what lies hidden on the surface of fiestas in some kind of theoretical and methodological framework. In each of the first five chapters of this book, I offer an account of a particular patronal saints' day festival and use that account to introduce another principle that has helped me in their interpretation. My first concern is to understand the particular fiestas and, at the end of Part One, to come to some sort of general conclusion about such days of saints and virgins, but it seems kinder to the reader to scatter theory lightly through the opening chapters than to serve it in one dense initial lump. Having partied with saints and virgins in Part One, we turn our attention in Parts Two and Three to Corpus Christi and Carnival. In the process, we travel as far north as the lowlands of Belgium and as far south as the Bolivian Andes, passing along the way through various regions of Spain, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Peru.

Our first step, however, is a small one. On the Monday of Manresa's festa major, I drove the thirty miles downhill from Manresa to the Catalan wineproducing center of Vilafranca del Penedès. I missed Manresa's correfoc, arriving in Vilafranca in time for the last night of the novena, nine days of preparatory devotion before the opening of the town's festa major in honor of Saint Felix. After prayers, in the Basilica de Santa Maria, an orchestra of piano, cello, and eight violins struck up and a men's choir launched into the "Goigs a Sant Félix" (Joys to Saint Felix), a bright communal song of praise to the town's patron saint. The congregation, filling the building to capacity, loudly joined in the final chorus. Unlike Manresa, Vilafranca still celebrates its patron saint with gusto. But it does so without prejudice to demons and dragons. Afterwards, in the square outside, a suited dignitary told us that the festa promotes the unity of the sacred and the profane.

The next day, the profane cercavila (parade around the town) began at the north end of the Rambla Sant Francesc, a normally peaceful promenade lined with overhanging trees. By midday the rambla was canopied with a network of firecrackers, crisscrossing from tree to tree for more than a hundred yards. Spectators crowded both sides. When a policeman warned those of us at the south end to move, an old man protested vehemently. We stood firm. Someone at the north end ignited the web of firecrackers; billowing clouds of smoke and deafening explosions abruptly raced towards us. Instinctively, as if we were under sudden artillery attack, we all rushed backwards. After maybe five seconds—who was counting?—the terrifying noise and smoke stopped just a few feet short of our retreat. We looked at each other, relieved, a little embarrassed, and laughed.

Saint Michael, two dozen devils, and a fiery dragon emerged from the settling smoke, followed by bandits, an eagle, giants, dwarfs, numerous teams of folk dancers, human towers several stories high, and the town's brass band. The parade completed a circuit of the town, stopping often to dance before appreciative crowds. The mayor and his guests watched from the balcony of the town hall, which was draped with a prominent banner proclaiming the town's sympathies in the Balkan conflict: "Vilafranca per Bosnia" (Vilafranca for Bosnia) (Fig. 1.4). Spanish Christians rooted for the Muslims.

The profane figures of the cercavila were joined that evening by the sacred image of Saint Felix. Although the relics of the saint remain in the basilica, his sculpted image spends the year as a guest in the homes of his several stewards. The nighttime religious procession began at the house of his most recent host. Leading the procession, as it had for centuries, was the dragon. A single man, carrying the eight-foot-long body of a black winged dragon on his shoulders, spun on his feet while the dragon sprayed bright fire from its wing tips, back, mouth, and tail (Fig. 1.3). The dragon was accompanied by a large group of devils in horned and hooded costumes of brown sackcloth painted with flames, reptiles, and infernal monsters. The devils, too, scattered fire. In their midst walked a young girl in white, carrying a toy sword and shield. Like many a folk Saint Michael, she made no effort to restrict the progress of the devils.

In 1424 Barcelona's Corpus Christi procession began with the creation of the world, the fall of Lucifer, the dragon of Saint Michael, and a sword fight between twenty-three devils and an unspecified number of angels. The first extant record of dragon, devils, and fireworks in the Vilafranca Corpus Christi procession dates from 1600. After the relics of Saint Felix arrived in Vilafranca (1700) and he was named co-patron of the town (1776), festive emphasis shifted from Corpus Christi to the saint's annual feast day. The dragon first danced for Felix in 1779; the devils followed in 1816. Saint Michael is little mentioned in the records. That the dragon and the devils were among the first traditional elements to accompany Saint Felix in procession indicates their popular appeal. Saint Michael's subsidiary role was to recall—but rarely to enact—the necessary public transcript of archangelic victory. The popular appeal of demons does not lie in their official defeat.

There are, of course, practical reasons for beginning a procession with demons and a pyrotechnic monster: they clear the streets for the less threatening acts that follow, and they start the festivities with a spectacular bang rather than a pious whisper. But there are other reasons for the popularity of so many undefeated devils in Catalan festivals. Devils are thrice damned by those in power: they are the enemies of God; their very mode of representation in fiestas has long been condemned by church and state as a remnant of pagan ritual; and they embody human desires and behaviors that the church represses. To dress as a devil and run unimpeded through the streets is to step outside the authority of the church, to challenge its claims to absolute moral wisdom, and, in modern Spain, to distance oneself further from Franco's Catholic triumphalism. It is not that Spaniards really want the devil and his minions to win the cosmic battle (if they still believe in such a thing), any more than they wish the Moors (whom they also love to act) had won the territorial war. But to play the devil grants a certain festive freedom and enacts a mild resistance to authoritative power. And so a pyrotechnic dragon and undefeated devils led the procession in honor of Saint Felix.

The procession stretched for a mile or more from the dragon to Saint Felix. In between, in careful gradation from profane to sacred, defiant to compliant, came the dances. Immediately following the devils was the ball d'en Serralonga, a traditional street play celebrating the escapades of the local bandit hero Joan de Serralonga and his wife, Joana de Torrelles. Some thirty bandits marched with Joan and Joana through the streets of Vilafranca, repeatedly firing their arquebuses. The bandits also went undefeated. The earliest extant manuscript (1826) of the play is a copy of one written in 1820. Banned at least once in the late nineteenth century, the ball d'en Serralonga had died out by the 1920s. It was revived in 1980, five years after the death of Franco sparked a broad recuperation of Catalan folk performances.

Traditional masked Corpus Christi figures came next. The eagle, like the dragon, was fashioned out of painted papier-mâché. Larger, less active, and less exciting than its infernal counterpart, it rested on the shoulders of a single man but required additional manual support. Once the symbol of Saint John the Evangelist, the eagle is now more likely to denote local autonomy. Two regal giants followed, made of wooden frames clothed with oversized robes and topped with papier-mâché heads, each borne by a single dancer who peered out through a thigh-high grille. Then came eight dwarfs (nans) and four big heads (caps grossos), each dancer creating the impression of diminutive size by wearing a disproportionately large papier-mâché head.

Skirted hobbyhorses formed a bridge to the unmasked (and therefore less threatening) dances that followed. All the horses were ridden by young women. Each rider was concealed from the waist down by an oval, hooped cotton skirt. In front of her upper body, a papier-mâché equine neck and head protruded. Like their fifteenth-century Barcelona predecessors, sponsored by the confraternity of cotton weavers, the Vilafranca hobbyhorses are known as cotonines (little cotton-[skirted horses]).

Many of the unmasked dancers carried modified weapons or instruments (shepherd's crooks, short sticks, flowered hoops, or tambourines) in what may once have been pyrrhic dances. The bastoners (stick dancers) performed a carefully choreographed dance of rapidly clashing sticks. One of the dancers told me afterwards that their distant predecessors had replaced traditional swords with more readily available cart wheel spokes." The pastorets (little shepherds) struck the ground and one another's wooden crooks in rapid-fire movements that threatened, if they missed, to fracture wrists and ankles. Then they formed an unbroken circle of interweaving shepherds, linked by crooks, who wove a wooden knot on which one of their number was raised shoulder high. The figuetaires (makers of faces), lacking weapons, pulled noses and slapped hands and faces with their bare hands before delivering a final phallic fist gesture. Another unarmed troupe wove ribbons round a portable maypole in the ball de les gitanes (dance of the gypsies). Yet another divided into several circles of two men and two women apiece to perform an elegant ball pla (plain dance, i.e., without leaps).

Then came three teams of castellers. Vilafranca is justly proud of its castellers, according them an almost religious status as markers of communal identity. Hence their place in the procession close to the image of Saint Felix. Each team consisted of a hundred or more men, women, and children who built human towers several stories high. The heavyweights among them formed a base of concentric human circles that supported a narrowing tower of younger and more lightweight members. The last to climb the wavering tower was a young child, often no more than five or six years old, who clambered up the backs of the other castellers to stand at the top. In procession (Fig. 1.4), the human tower moved forward several yards or even rotated on its axis before dismantling (or collapsing). The towers form a striking image of communal interdependence, involving male and female, young and old, in a complex series of movements in which there is no room for individual flamboyance and each part must depend on all the others. To be a casteller is to submit to the good order of the whole. And yet the goal of all this order is a striking image of the reversal of conventional social hierarchy: the tower is supported on the backs of adult males hidden in the base and at its visible pinnacle is a small child, often female.

Even closer to Saint Felix was an explicitly religious variation on the castellers: the misleadingly named ball de la moixiganga (mummers' dance). Some twenty-five men and boys formed acrobatic towers representing scenes from the Passion of Christ: Jesus in prayer, the scourging, the mock coronation with thorns, two versions of the crucifixion, the deposition, and the burial. When not in formation, the men and boys processed in sober double file, bearing candles. The first record of such a display in Vilafranca dates from 1713. The dance lapsed between 1905 and its revival in 1985.

Finally came the image of Saint Felix, surrounded by candles, on a litter quietly borne by four men in suits. This Felix, the best known of the sixty-six who share that happy name in the pages of the Roman Martyrology, was a Roman priest martyred under Diocletian, ca. 304. On his way to execution, the priest was joined by an unidentified stranger who volunteered to join him in death. The pair are known in the literature of sanctity as Felix and Adauctus (the added one).

The procession thus stretched from the demonic to the sainted, from the lawless to the orderly, from loud and scattered fire to silent and contained candles. Just as the castellers represented the mutual interdependence of different parts in the formation and sustenance of a complex whole, so did the entire procession, with its mixture of saints and demons, dwarfs and giants, fiery dragons and civic dignitaries in somber suits. Even the ostensibly pyrrhic dances represented mutual cooperation rather than conflict. In an intricate series of dance steps and clashing sticks, each performer had to depend for his or her safety on the skill and care of the others. So it was with the procession as a whole: were the demons or the bandits to be excluded, the processional balance would be as surely lost as would the balance of the castellers if any member of the tower stepped out of place.

Lest the extended procession be mistaken for a visual argument that the coexistence of demons and saints depends on keeping them as far apart as possible, the climactic entry of Saint Felix to the basilica brought all the parts together in a single spectacle. Arriving at the basilica, the dragon, devils, and bandits waited to the north of the stone steps leading to the church's west door. The dancers and castellers gradually filled the open square behind them. By the time the moixiganga and the saint reached the foot of the steps, there was barely room for performers or spectators, packed shoulder to shoulder, to move anywhere in the square. The saint stood to the south of the steps, the moixiganga in the middle.

Suddenly, the dragon and the demons exploded into action, hurling fire in all directions, Joan de Serralonga and his gang shot arquebuses in the air, giants whirled, drums beat, dancers jumped, a cascade of white fire poured down from the roof of the church over its facade, the moixiganga formed a mimetic tower, and Felix was carried up the steps into the basilica. The moixiganga followed in sacred formation. The procession thus turned itself inside out, with the sacred rear passing through the profane front in a moment of shared celebration. The crowd rushed into the basilica behind the moixiganga. A few minutes later, there was not even standing room inside. At the front, a choir several hundred strong led the congregation in singing the "Goigs a Sant Félix." Many of those in the choir were still in costume, including Joan de Serralonga himself.

The following night, a second, virtually identical procession began and finished at the basilica. After wending its way through Vilafranca's streets, it once more concluded with a spectacular entry to the church. I missed the third procession, leaving Vilafranca on the last day of August for my next patronal saint's day festival. I gather from Vilafranca's program that the procession took Felix from the basilica, through the streets, to the house of his first steward for the following year. A grand show of fireworks welcomed him.

Felix had thus spent just two nights in the basilica before resuming his role as a perpetual house guest in the community. Like many patron saints, Felix identifies more readily with the people, with whom he spends his time, than with the institution of the church. Twice, as he does each year, he had sanctioned a festive invasion of the church in proclamation of a vision of human community more tolerant than official theological dogma and more inclusive than antagonistic political ideologies. Whereas traditional Christian theology tends to see both corporate history and individual psychology as a dualistic struggle between good and evil, the folk theology of Vilafranca's festa major offers an alternative vision in which differences, rather than being set at odds with one another, are encompassed in a single mutually interdependent whole. Whereas political ideologies tend to see human society as a bloody battleground between good and evil, the political vision of Vilafranca's festa major pleads instead for tolerance. Sympathy for the embattled Muslims of Bosnia, heirs to the Turks so long feared and fought by Spain, was a specific application of this vision.

At least, this is how I saw it. But a cautious reader may ask whether I am not simply imposing my own meaning on another's fiesta. In the absence of any explicit interpretation (written or oral) by local informants, how do I know what the fiesta signifies? In Manresa—thanks to the good offices of Maria-Angels Clotet, a friend in the town hall—I was able to speak with Marc Torras and several others intimately involved with the festivities. In Vilafranca, I had no such contact. I read the definitive work on the town's dances and processional figures by a local scholar, Francesc Bové, and I spoke with several performers, most of whom told me what Bové had already published in 1926. Only the official who opened the festa by declaring that it celebrated the unity of the sacred and the profane offered any explanation of the fiesta as a whole.

But I don't believe that lack of insider information renders a fiesta unintelligible to an observant outsider. Before stating my case positively, it is worth pointing out that the traditional anthropological reliance on local informants can be misleading. The information gleaned may now be nothing more than the recycled speculation of a previous scholar. Such is the case, for example, with English morris dancers who almost uniformly embrace the discredited theory of Cecil Sharp that the morris has its origins in pre-Christian seasonal ritual." To be informed by a rural morris dancer that he is engaged in an ancient fertility rite does not make it so.

Even more important, perhaps, is the reluctance of a subordinate people to reveal the hidden transcript of a performance to an outsider, let alone to one whose skin color identifies him as one of the dominant caste. While this is less of a problem for a European scholar in England or Spain than it is for the same person in Bolivia or Puerto Rico, it is always a danger. Insiders tend to offer outsiders the public transcript. Even in Vilafranca, I was more likely to be offered the conventional platitude that the festa was in honor of Saint Felix than I was to be told that it entailed a complex negotiation with orthodox theology and the aftermath of a military dictatorship. In Manresa, Torras only spoke of Franco when I pressed him.

Finally, what is articulated in performance may never be rendered explicitly in words even by the performer himself. This is not just a matter of allowing the hidden transcript to remain implicit. It is also a question of media. Just as a painter may speak more clearly in paint than in theory, so a group of folk performers may express themselves more skillfully in performance than when one of their number explains the performance to an outside investigator. When the folklorist Dorothy Noyes arrived in Berga, thirty miles uphill from Manresa, full of a scholar's questions about the town's Corpus Christi festival-known as the Patum-she was told repeatedly, "La Patum s'ha de viure. T'hi ficaràs o no?" (One has to live the Patum. Are you going in there or not?)" To insist on the primacy of words is to insist on translation into the medium of the scholar. Much may be lost in the translation.

Conversation with performers can be invaluable, but it is no guarantee of understanding and it is no substitute for reading the mask of the performance itself. By definition, there is no textual documentation of a hidden transcript, and spoken clues to its identity are not there simply for the asking. It is my experience that windows onto the hidden transcript are more likely to swing open unexpectedly in response to a naive question in a casual conversation than they are in the context of a formal interview. But if I really want to fathom a fiesta's hidden transcript, I must watch for its display, not in text or speech, but in performance.

This, then, is my second heuristic principle: the hidden transcript—and hence the full complexity of meaning—of a fiesta is accessible in performance even if it is not confirmed by explicit textual or verbal statement. Or, to put it another way, folk performances bear sufficient signification in themselves if outsiders will but take the time to learn to understand them. Careful scholarship about the history of a fiesta and its constituent parts—and not just local legends endorsed by poor scholarship—certainly help the investigator, although there is no guarantee that meaning is constant from one generation to the next. Annual folk performances are fluid, responsive to their changing social, political, economic, and religious contexts, but a knowledge of their history at least guards against misleading public transcripts grounded in a fabricated history. Knowledge of the present social context helps, too, but this is a two-way street. In several cases, a fiesta has provided me with insight into current social tensions not otherwise articulated in public. In sum, conversations with performers and other local residents add to my understanding, as do careful historical research and a knowledge of current social dynamics, but in the end it is the performance itself that must be allowed to speak, even in the absence of any verbal confirmation of its meaning.

Support for my conviction that words are not the final interpretive authority can be drawn from the field of art history. In a brilliant essay, first published in 1983, Leo Steinberg drew attention to the previously unremarked fact that in Renaissance art Christ's penis was not only portrayed—as had rarely been the case in medieval art—but that attention was drawn to it and, most astonishing of all, that it was frequently erect. He argued that this was not just a matter of increased naturalism but that it advanced a theological argument for the full humanity and sinlessness of Christ. Chastity without ability would have been impotence, not commendable restraint.

In defending his argument against the generally skeptical and the specifically prudish, Steinberg had to wrestle with the fact that there was little contemporary textual support for his position. He did so by pointing out that, in the nature of the case, writers and preachers could discreetly avoid the issue of Christ's genitalia but painters, when representing him as a human baby or a naked victim of crucifixion, could not. Either they implicitly feminized him, or they rendered him fully male and fully human. Renaissance painters took the latter course, he suggested, for good theological reasons. The absence of textual support had more to with the relative media than with the novelty of Steinberg's position.

He went further, acknowledging that one of the secondary motives of his study was "to remind the literate among us that there are moments, even in a wordy culture like ours, when images start from no preformed program to become primary texts. Treated as illustrations of what is already scripted, they withhold their secrets." An auxiliary purpose of my own book is to make the same case for fiestas. Fiestas are primary texts that withhold their secrets from those who insist on what Steinberg calls "verbal corroboration." "Our material," he writes, in language that applies almost as well to the field of festival studies, "are images that speak not in tongues but in shapes and gestures, images that transmit conscious decisions, solutions invented by artists, approved by peers and patrons and enforced by habit and acquiescence." Folk performers may not always be quite so self-conscious about their decisions as Renaissance painters, but they are artists nonetheless, and their works are primary texts that will always be in danger of misunderstanding when scholarly interpreters privilege verbal commentary over the performances themselves.

Given the nature of public and hidden transcripts, folk performers may prefer it this way. It means that scholars are more likely to accept and perpetuate the public transcript. But there is always a hunger to be understood, especially when political danger has subsided. After all, in the absence of textual corroboration, the performers can always retreat, if necessary, to a public denial of the supposed hidden transcript. But I have found they are just as likely to be delighted when I hazard a guess as to their intent. They may only grin, but they let me know when I'm right.

None of this guarantees that my uncorroborated—or loosely corroborated—readings of fiestas are correct. It only argues that my attempt should not be deemed misguided from the outset. I cannot, as Steinberg could, reproduce complete paintings by way of supporting evidence, but I will do my best to describe each fiesta in as much detail as space allows, thereby giving readers the opportunity to assess my reading of the data for themselves. I will also draw attention to what corroboration is available. But, in the end, my readings will have to be judged not on the weight of verbal corroboration but on the evidence of the primary texts themselves: the fiestas.

Max Harris is Executive Director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Dr. Harris has preempted a field almost unto himself: the study of contemporary festivals that have their origins in tradition, history, and the great religious celebrations of the past.... [This book] represents a masterful achievement."

—Milla Cozart Riggio, James J. Goodwin Professor of English, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut