According to the official website of the bishopric of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, around 30,000 people took part in or observed Thursday’s celebration of the feast day of San Sebastian in Adeje. I’m hopeless at judging numbers, but it was clear that there were already several thousand there by the time we had scoffed the empanadas after our short pilgrimage, which I described yesterday. The picture below shows the beach in only direction, with people perched on every vantage point the rocky shoreline presented. It was the same in the other direction, along the beach and up steps to the road beyond.
The fiestas of late summer can be compared to harvest time in the northern countries, but I don’t know how to compare this season. Last week in Santiago del Teide it was San Antonio Abad (Abbott), this week in Adeje it was San Sebastian, and next week sees more celebrations involving San Antonio in Los Silos and Buenavista del Norte. The connection is animals, and perhaps knowing that San Sebastian is the saint in charge of warding off pests and plagues, and that San Antonio is the patron of domestic animals explains it. Seems to me if they worked together it might help, but hey, what does an old agnostic know! The idea is that the animals are blessed and hopefully fruitful (in one way or the other!) in the year ahead.
I’ve always kind of liked San Sebastian. He’s always portrayed as being so young and handsome for one thing (check out the painting by El Greco, ladies), not to mention that he was a soldier, and I’m a sucker for a man in uniform (especially back in the 3rd century when they displayed their well-toned legs too). For another, years ago I visited the catacombs outside of Rome, where his body supposedly lay for some time, and whatever one believes there is an extraordinary atmosphere there. What I thought was the manner of his death, portrayed as he always is, pierced by arrows, seemed a bit different to most too, but checking him out online (aren’t they all there now!) before the fiesta, I found out that he didn’t die from those wounds, but was rescued, nursed back to health, returned to taunt Diocletian, who then, of course, furious, had him beaten to death. What any of that has to do with plagues and pests I don’t know, but it all makes for an excuse to fiesta.
On Wednesday night he’d enjoyed his annual trip to see the fireworks, which I missed, and Thursday his job was to follow the procession of animals from the elegant hermitage in La Caleta de Adeje, where a mass was conducted, down to the shore to make sure they all had a dip before his blessing. I’m not sure that I ever touched on religion here before, other than simply talking about the different fiestas, but by now you may have guessed that I am not a fan. I do wonder, however, what would happen to local traditions if the entire population overnight came to think as I do. So many of them were based originally in religion. Would they be rejected, or would they continue just for fun? Carnaval, after all, has nothing to do with a pre-Lent cleansing any longer. The fact is that I’m perfectly ok with the idea of people like saints; persons, living or dead, who may have closer links to the universe than the rest of us, but I’m not ok with the misinformation about them, nor the power of organized religions, so if I ruled the world this would, actually, still go on.
We took a peek inside the churches, the pretty new one, built in 1961, and the tiny old one, which had fallen into disrepair, but is now beautifully restored, before heading down to the beach. Although I’d seen pictures of this fiesta from previous years I was surprised at the number of people so early, waiting for the action. We checked with a local policeman, who was struggling, charmingly to answer questions in at least four languages that I overheard, and he indicated the route of the procession, and we found a shady spot to wait. It was then that the contrast between the fairly simple celebrations in Santiago del Teide the previous weekend, and what was happening in La Caleta struck me. It wasn’t the sincerity of the proceedings or that they were not genuine in any way whatsoever, but that so many tourists were attracted to them. It seemed like two worlds colliding.
The tourists waited impatiently in their spotless white shorts, clutching their cameras; locals sat patiently on the pavements and clutched their cameras too. It was a longish wait. Very little here happens at the appointed hour, and it occurred to me that with the huge crowd the priest might have run out of wafers, but in due time we spotted the procession coming down the street, and the nice policeman indicated that we should move out of its way a bit.
It was a wonderfully mixed group of riders who approached first, some dressed in traditional Canarian vests and hats, others looking like polo players, and yet others looking as if they were just there for fun in jeans and vests, and there was the inevitable guy with a cellphone to his ear, but all in great good humor, and seeming to be relishing every minute. There was a cute donkey with a sunhat, looking as if he belonged in an old western, and immaculately groomed steeds with plaited manes. There were graceful women riders, and those who looked like businessmen on a day off, farmers, punks and some seriously cute children. The riders were followed by a couple of pony and traps, and then came the shepherds and goatherds with their flocks. Many of them carried the traditional long staffs which were carried by the Guanches long before the Conquistadors set foot on this island. You’ll see them in the pictures below. Not only were they used for keeping steady on the rocky terrain, but also used to launch the goatherd as he jumped from rock to rock.
The rear of the procession was brought up by San Sebastian and the mayor, priest and other local dignitaries, and we followed as they made their way down to the beachfront. Dexterous use of elbows and not being afraid of the water got us views of the fun as horses, goats and sheep were pulled, coaxed or willingly trotted into the water. It is, I think, the most fun festival I’ve witnessed, and having done the “pilgrimage” it felt quite cool to be a little part of it, but by the time all the dunking was over we were starving and headed straight for the hotdog stand. That the procession was then winding its way up to El Humilladero didn’t mean we escaped the queues, half the world, it seemed, had decided the same. Roughly the queue and one hotdog later they returned to the roadside in front of the church, where animals, riders and keepers received a sprinkling of holy water to protect them from the plagues and pests of the coming year, and in all seriousness I hope it works.
For Cristina and me there was now the challenge of an hour to hour and half walking back to Adeje. We were on the beach, and Adeje lies at 280 m above sea level. My boots were falling apart. The sun was hot, and I’d been on my feet since 9am. Even so, the walk was fun (at least until we reached the road, then not-so-much), and it had all been well worth it.
I couldn’t begin to guess just how many of that 30,000 crowd were tourists, and I don’t begrudge the popularization of the fiesta one bit. We are in crisis, and tourist euros are essential to the economy. In fact, it’s a good thing that so many people realize that there is at least one whole other aspect to life on this lovely island. Still, it seemed incongruous, the sheep and goats bleating, the horses prancing and the stalls selling hotdogs and ice cream as well as sardines and turrón, and in the background the swish hotels of Costa Adeje. This festival is still able to happen because the beach there is still stones, and hasn’t been blasted with golden sand stolen from the seabed, and because there is still waste ground, not yet built on. I suppose one day grand hotels will rise on that waste ground too, and I wonder what will happen then to this tradition.