When the Saints Come Marching In

For heaven’s sake, the Portuguese and Spaniards love their saints.

Or, perhaps it’s their saints’ days (many last longer than a day!) with all the festivities and closures that they really appreciate?

As two of the most Catholic countries, religious holidays are bountiful in both Spain and Portugal, where many of the same feast days and ferias are celebrated.

Holy Week (“Semana Santa”), the week before Easter starting on Palm Sunday, is recognized almost everywhere “Christian,” as is Christmas. Both Portugal and Spain also pay tribute to the Eucharist through Corpus Christi, the “Body of Christ,” with processions, prayers, bells, incense, singing, and church services. (The exact date of Corpus Christi varies each year, according to Easter.)

Next to Jesus, most venerated is the Virgin Mary. Personally, I’m reminded of that daily … as the street we now live on is named Nossa Senhora dos Altos Céus (“Our Lady of the Highest Heavens”).

A four-day “Festa Nossa Senhora Dos Altos Céus” is the highlight of the year here in Lousa. In addition to all the religious homage featuring a procession along streets festooned with petals, marching band, icons held high on their floats, and people dressed in their finest, following along up town and down, a carnival-like atmosphere pervades the village with celebratory lights strung across streets, community meals, games of chance, carousing and partying. Then, it takes weeks for the community to clean up from all that revelry.

Portugal and Spain honor Mary on August 15th for the Assumption of Mary, and on December 8th for the Immaculate Conception.

Celebrated on the same day (November 1st) in Spain and Portugal, too, is All Saints Day: “Todos los Santos” in Spanish and “Dia de Todos os Santos” in Portuguese, a national holiday in the two countries.

From national to the local levels, every town, village, and province in Portugal and Spain honors its own special saints, as well.

In Olvera, our town in southern Spain, it’s Mary who’s again praised. According to tradition, sometime around 1500, a shepherd found an abandoned virgin about two kilometers from Olvera and, there, the Olvereños built their hermitage, an object of worship and consolation to the townsfolk all these years. Back in 1715, Olvera suffered a severe famine due to a drought and prayed for the Virgin to intercede. And the rain came! Thanking our Lady of Los Remedios is a tradition now on the Monday of Quasimodo, toasting the Virgin with a special pastry known as the “Torta del Lunes de Quasimodo.”

For the sheer quantity of saints having holidays, the prize goes to Portugal … which has several saints honored across the country. Who hasn’t heard of Fátima, Portugal’s most famous Christian pilgrimage?

On May 13, 1917, three children saw a miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary in Fátima. Later that same year, other apparitions apparently were witnessed by large numbers of people at the site.

Nowadays, a candlelight procession through the town on May 12th leads to the sanctuary. The next day, crowds wave white handkerchiefs, as a statue of the Virgin is carried from the high altar to the Chapel of the Apparitions during the “Adeus” (farewell) procession the following day. A second pilgrimage is held in October.

The Portuguese celebrate November 11th as Saint Martin’s Day, another national holiday, which honors a soldier who cut his cloak in half to help keep a beggar warm … after which the sun came out to warm him. As a result, warm days at the beginning of November are called “St. Martin’s Summer.” The Portuguese celebrate this time – called “Magusto” – with bonfires and parties, lots of chestnuts and wine.

Respects are paid to John the Baptist (São João) around the country on June 23-24.

With all due respect, however, nowhere are as many saints recognized as in little Lousa. Besides the principal holiday devoted to “Our Lady of the Highest Heavens,” Lousa features at least four favored saints.

In August 2018, Santa Luzia is exalted on the 4th and 5th with a procession and a special exposition dedicated to her at our historical museum. Not two weeks later is a three-day (17-19) festival honoring Saint Sebastian (São Sebastião). Other saints officially recognized and revered in this small village with a population hovering at about 800 include Santa Bárbara and San Antonio (the latter is feted for three days in June with a sardine fest). Nearby Lardosa sponsors its own four-day jubilee for Saint Anthony in August.

Yet, so enthralled is Lousa with its saints that Lousarte, our hometown cultural association, published a book entitled Los Santos da Lousa e Outras Coisas, available for purchase at the Lousarte museum.

Museums seem to be religion’s realm today, albeit holy days, special events and occasions – births, weddings, funerals – notwithstanding.

Fewer people seem to be participating in church services on Sundays.

Lord knows – except for the elderly, mostly women at that – I hardly see people going into or coming out of churches when the bells toll. Maybe it’s the same at other places of worship, too?

There’s an oft-told joke in Spain which, loosely translated, states that “A Spaniard will die defending the doors of his church. That doesn’t mean that he’ll ever go in!”

I suspect the same may be more or less true today in Portugal.

And elsewhere, too.

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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