Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance

Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance

Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance

Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance


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.


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, allowing devils guarded passage between an offstage alley and the square, I caught the eye of Marc Torras, the city’s archivist and pyrotechnician. He invited me inside the barrier.

Squatting on the cobbled pavement, in the space of beasts and monsters, I could see more clearly: masked demons, dressed in fiery red and yellow suits, with fireworks in their hands and on their heads; winged, fire-breathing dragons, papier-mâché monsters each borne by a single man whose legs and feet alone were visible; the serpent, fanged and red-eyed, her flesh and breasts the pallid green of slime, likewise hefted by a single bearer. a long-necked giant mule, made of olive cloth stretched over a wooden frame, requiring several men to carry it, dropped its neck and, spinning, scattered a vicious circle of sparks. a bare-chested man in furred trousers and a bearded mask, topped with high, curving mountain goat’s horns, briefly had the arena to himself. a flute played. Pan spoke to us, his voice amplified by loudspeakers. Most spectacular of all the monsters was the ox, a whirling, fire-spitting beast designed by Torras from two bulky pieces of an old ribbon-making loom, itself known as an “ox.” the bearer’s legs could just be seen amid the ambient flashes of light and thick clouds of smoke (Fig. 1.1).

Rockets shot into the air from the roof of the town hall. the smell of explosives was pervasive. When at last the show was over, the barriers were removed and the audience pressed into the heart of the square, now illuminated by streetlights. Devils, women, men, and children linked arms to dance in one big counterclockwise whirlpool to the joyous music of a band.

I was in Manresa, in the foothills of the Pyrenees above Barcelona, for the . . .

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