If you want to find the world’s oddest collection of festivals, look no farther than Spain. Part of this is due to the fact that every Spanish village has a patron saint and an annual fiesta to celebrate that saint. Part of this is because certain parts of Spain are a surreal stew of Paganism and Catholicism (El Colacho, the baby jumping festival, is an example of this). And, part of this is due to the fact the Spanish love a good party, even if it’s to honor–not the dead–but the nearly-dead.
The location of this festival in Galicia, the northwestern part of the country, explains part of the strange beauty of this event. For many centuries, this region has been somewhat isolated from the influences of traditional Catholicism. The primitive rituals that became a legacy in this area - many of which came from a belief in witchcraft and evil spirits - never died despite the fact that they represented quite a departure from the orthodoxy of the church. This pilgrimage honors Las Nieves’s patron saint of resurrection, Santa Marta de Ribarteme (the sister of Lazarus who was brought back from death by Jesus), who has a granite church in this small town in her name.
Solemnly-dressed family members carry those who claim a near-death experience in the past year to the church, where a mass is celebrated around noon (often, with many of the near-dead sitting erect in their coffins). There are also older men without families who must carry their own coffins which seems rather sad. Afterwards, the procession goes uphill to the cemetery before returning to the church with people singing, “Virgin Santa Marta, Star of the North, we bring those who saw death.” Yes, this sounds morose, but as is typical in Spanish festivals, a wild afternoon and evening of celebration occurs with fireworks, brass bands, gypsy music and street vendors selling every type of religious memorabilia. Paintings of The Last Supper are particularly popular.
Solemnly-dressed family members carry those who claim a near-death experience in the past year to the church, where a mass is celebrated around noon (often, with many of the near-dead sitting erect in their coffins).
Those who have passed through a near-death experience use coffins as the emblems of their transcendence to a new life here on Earth through the grace of God. Pilgrimages have a deep history in this part of Spain. Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia. The city has its origin in the shrine of Saint James the Great, now the city’s cathedral as destination of the Way of St. James, a leading Catholic pilgrimage route originated in the 9th century. The city’s Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and is definitely worth a visit.
There are many people around the world who escape death each year and a small fraction of them make the pilgrimage to this small Spanish town. Don’t be surprised to see tears of pain and joy and lots of storytelling about how people escaped “the dark mansion called Death.” A little Spanish wine makes the stories even more vivid. But, all in all, it’s a joyous day to celebrate life, not death.