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Carnival and Other Christian Festivals

Folk Theology and Folk Performance

By Max Harris

Publication Year: 2003

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.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture


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pp. vii


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pp. ix-xi


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pp. xiii

PART ONE: Days of Saints and Virgins

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I. Demons and Dragons (Catalonia)

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pp. 3-20

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...

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2. Flowers for Saint Tony (Aragon)

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pp. 21-32

While working on the music for his ballet suite The Three-Cornered Hat, the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla visited the small Aragonese town of Fuendetodos (Zaragoza), where he was treated to a midday banquet in the town hall. Intending to honor both Falla and the musical traditions of the region, a diva in his party stepped outside onto the balcony and sang...

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3. El Mas Chiquito de To’ Los Santos (Puerto Rico)

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pp. 33-48

Thanks to the pioneering work of the Puerto Rican scholar Ricardo Alegría and to the scale and exuberance of their processions, the Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol en Loíza (Festivals of Saint James the Apostle in Loíza) are among the best known patronal saints’ day celebrations in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Little devils with translucent colored bat wings

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4. The Cross-Dressed Virgin on a Tightrope (Mexico)

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pp. 49-64

In December 1998, I was one of a reported six million pilgrims who visited the basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City to celebrate the annual feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe (12 December).1 That’s more people than live in the entire country of Denmark, greater than the combined populations of Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago...

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5. A Polka for the Sun and Santiago (Mexico)

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pp. 65-79

Two days later, my wife and I drove from Mexico City to San Luis Huexotla. Finding at first no sign of the santiaguitos whom we had seen at the basilica of Guadalupe, we parked our car in a quiet square beside the village’s colonial church, built in the mid-sixteenth century on the ruins of an old pyramidal temple. The church adjoins the small Franciscan conven...

PART TWO: Corpus Christi

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6. Dancing under Friendly Fire (Catalonia)

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pp. 83-98

In 1565 the Coventry Draper’s Guild paid an anonymous pyrotechnician fourpence for ‘‘setting the worlds on fire.’’ Three worlds, one at each performance, were consumed during the Doomsday play that the guild staged at the close of the city’s Corpus Christi cycle.1 In late medieval Coventry, the world ended not with a whimper but with a spectacular bang...

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7. A Confraternity of Jews (Castile-La Mancha)

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pp. 99-112

On a bitterly cold first Sunday of Lent, 12 February 1486, seven hundred fifty conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity) ‘‘went in procession . . . bareheaded and unshod’’ through the streets of Toledo, then the capital of Spain. ‘‘Howling loudly and weeping and tearing out their hair,’’ according to a contemporary account...

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8. Saint Sebastian and the Blue-eyed Blacks (Peru)

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pp. 113-136

For a few hours on Thursday morning, Corpus Christi in Cusco resembles its haughty peninsular cousin in Toledo more than it does its exuberant kin in Berga and Camu

PART THREE: Carnivals

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9. A Scattering of Ants (Galicia)

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pp. 139-156

On 12 March 1445 the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris issued a letter to the bishops and chapters of France, deploring clerical behavior during seasonal festivities: ‘‘Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders, or minstrels.They sing wanton songs.They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying mass...

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10. The Bandit and the Fat Man (Navarre)

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pp. 157-172

A chill wind whipped through the main square of Bielsa (Aragon), buffeting the crowd with refrigerated air fromthe nearby Pyrenean peaks. Against the cold, a bonfire burned. Presiding over the festivities was Don Cornelio Zorrilla Carnaval (Cornelius Carnival the Drunk, Esquire), a life-sized effigy of clothed straw...

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11. Safe for the Bourgeoisie (Belgium)

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pp. 173-186

Not all Carnivals engage directly with the Christian narrative and its seasonal rituals, but most invoke the opposing theory of Carnival’s link to pre- Christian rites. The motives for doing so vary. Spanish rural Carnivals invoke pagan antiquity as a sign of theirmoral distance from Franco’s Catholic triumphalism and as a proof of age and status. The great urban Carnivals of the Caribbean...

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12. Devils and Decorum (Trinidad)

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pp. 187-204

On my first day on the island of Trinidad, I was attacked by robbers, mesmerized by devils, and accused by an unwed mother of fathering her child. I had arrived in Port of Spain on Carnival Friday 1996, just in time for the old mas parade. While Binche summons the Romantic theory of rural pre- Christian ritual to dignify its Carnival, Trinidad invokes the classical precedent...

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13. The Sins of the Carnival Virgin (Bolivia)

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pp. 205-226

Oruro's Carnival faces some of the same problems as that of Port of Spain but in a very different climate and with stronger religious roots.Oruro squats high in the Bolivian altiplano, strikingmany travelers as ‘‘amean, forbidding town, hugging the bare hillside,’’ where ‘‘all is grey monotony even in the noon sunlight...


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pp. 227-252


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pp. 253-270


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pp. 271-282

E-ISBN-13: 9780292798632
E-ISBN-10: 0292798636
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292705524
Print-ISBN-10: 0292705522

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 65 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture