POLLENCA, Spain — Last week I attended one of the many religiously-themed festivals here in Spain. I had already celebrated the weeklong festivities for the feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul, as well as St. James (the Mallorcan versions of the name, Jaume or Jaime, appear everywhere on the island. I know of at least a dozen). However, the feast of the Patrona (“Patroness”) in the town of Pollença ought, in my opinion, to be as world-renowned as the tomato throwing in Valencia or the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
The patroness for which the feast is named is, in the local dialect, La Mare de Déu dels Angels (Our Lady of the Angels). The local inhabitants of the 20,000 person town credit the Virgin under this title with protecting them from the attack of Moorish pirates in 1550. While perhaps inter-religious dialogue is not at the center of the tradition (although there is a sincere recognition of Arab influence on the island), the reenactment of the battle between the “Moros i Cristians” is one of the most memorable spectacles I have ever witnessed.
The basis for the story runs as follows. A band of marauding pirates, not uncommon on a Mediterranean island, attacked the city in the dead of night, led by a villainous character named Dragut. In response, local hero Joan Mas foreshadowed Paul Revere’s similar nocturnal warning by alerting his countrymen (although if Revere had actually shouted “The British are coming” and not conducted his task in secrecy, we’d likely today still use the Sterling Pound and call elevators “lifts”). Mas, ran through the cobblestone streets yelling something loosely translated as “Mother of God of the Angels, protect us. The pirates are attacking. Arise, Pollensians, and defend your city.” He then led the residents to fight off the attack, remain at least nominally Christian, and go about their business peaceably living in paradise.
The celebration of this event is entrenched in the collective Pollentian mindset and is the highlight of their year. They hold elections for who will represent the lead characters in the re-enactment. I was told that when the local playing Mas appears to shout the phrase to inaugurate the battle, it is —with the possible exception of his wedding and the birth of his first son — the most important moment of his life.
Thousands of people with painted faces are dressed either in colorful pirate costumes or white 16th century loose-fitting “Christian” attire. The thousands of the former have wooden swords, the latter have clubs, hand-carved pitchforks, and shotguns firing blanks in the air. One chooses a side in his or her youth and usually stays with it for life.
Everyone participates in the day, from 4-year-old girls in the cutest little pirate outfits to hard-bitten elderly Christian Spaniards smoking unfiltered cigarettes cheering on their compatriots.
The battle itself is something like Mardi Gras meets professional wrestling. Most of the townspeople are awake from the night before, when large amounts of Mesclat (a tasty but fiery local alcohol flavored with carob and anise) are imbibed and suckling pigs roasted and enjoyed. They clash and “pretend” to fight, with various local feuds usually ending in some minor but real injuries, until the Christians, after hours of this more-intense-than-expected clashing, rush into the local stadium and capture Dragut’s flag, ending the battle.
The Patrona festival is not only a source of pride for locals and a magnet for tourists, but a tremendous example of how religion and culture can inform one another and result in unique and lasting traditions. As with Guadalupe or seven fishes or pre-dawn Filipino Masses, the church’s long and distinctive history touches national identity and inculturated ritual celebrations are an authentic part of countless generations’ experiences of local religious expression.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.