Saturday, January 18, 2014

How Old Is Tradition? Saint Sebastian

Sant Antoni may lay claim to being Mallorca's premier winter fiesta, but Palma's Sant Sebastià (Sebastian) can do likewise. In its scale and variety, it is surely entitled to stake the number one spot. But premier or not, it remains a frustration that Sebastian (and Anthony) stubbornly refuse to allow themselves to be recognised for the tourism treats that they are.

I have delved into my archives to look at what I have written about Sebastian in the past, and in 2009 I considered what "Ultima Hora" had to say about the Palma event. It was critical. It had a go at the organisers for not knowing what the people of Palma wanted and at the lack of international music acts and indeed at the preponderance of local acts to the exclusion of performers from the mainland.

The criticism was valid up to a point. In 2008, the music night had featured, among the acts on the nine stages, two British bands - ELO Part II and Echo and the Bunnymen. But then that was 2008. A year later, and things were different; financially different. Though crisis was starting to have an effect, there was still an expectation that Sebastian would be an aspiring international event which featured foreign acts and could therefore be increasingly marketable overseas.

After the 2008 event, the then councillor for culture at Palma town hall, Eberhard Grosske, said that he felt the time was right to re-think the fiesta. He also said that there needed to be greater promotional effort to attract foreign tourists. However, the re-thinking that was done was determined as much by finances as by fiesta content. Grosske's desire to see more promotion was lost in the need to scale back. Or this was how it seemed.

The presence of international acts on the music night added kudos, but for the 2008 event questions arose. One was to do with how much importance should have been placed on having international artists. Having one or two big (or biggish) names was never likely to attract a great deal of foreign interest. The fiesta would have required several more to have been able to do so, something that was never going to have happened.

A second question was more fundamental. What actually was being promoted anyway? Was it a music festival or was it a traditional fiesta? The answer would probably have been both, but herein lay a problem. Put contemporary and traditional together, and the promotional message becomes blurred. Most fiestas are a mix of the two, but their inherent appeal lies more with the tradition than with the new. Or does it, because there is a further question. What is the tradition?

The origins of the Sebastian story, in case you are not familiar with them, lie with events of 1523, when a bone of Saint Sebastian was brought to Palma by an archdeacon named Manuel Suriavisqui. It was a miracle bone which brought an end to a bad dose of the plague from which Palma had been suffering and which helped to eventually elevate Sebastian to the role of patron saint of the city.

Though 1523 is usually taken as the start of the Sebastian story, the celebration of Sebastian's feast had been taking place for some time before this. In 1451, for example, the Aloy bell at the Cathedral was rung to mark the solemn occasion. The patronage of Sebastian for his own chapel was awarded five years before the bone miracle, so Sebastian was firmly established in Palma before the archdeacon from San Juan de Colachi in Rhodes appeared with the healing part of the saint's body.

There have been various milestones in the Palma-Sebastian story over the centuries. It was 1634 when he was named patron saint, and there has been a fiesta ever since. In 1711, the chapel was destroyed by lightning and it took until 1757 for a new image of the saint to be brought from Rome. But coming much closer to the present day, it wasn't until 1977 that the celebration of Sebastian took on its current form. It was the folkloricist Bartomeu Ensenyat, who was known mainly for his promotion of Mallorcan dance, who proposed an "eve" (the "revetla"). And so this started in the Plaça Major and grew and grew to embrace the various other squares that it now does with its numerous musical acts. So, when we talk of the tradition of Sebastian in Palma and the newer, more contemporary aspect, i.e. the music night, this is less than 40 years old, which is not really long enough, you would think, to constitute a tradition, unlike the genuinely traditional, such as the demons and the "correfoc" fire-run.

But in fact, this isn't right. The two "traditions" are of more or less the same vintage. The correfoc is not even 40 years old itself. Demons have been around for centuries in Catalan culture, but it wasn't until La Mercè, Barcelona's major fiesta, revived the whole demons' tradition in the 1970s and also introduced the correfoc that this particular tradition took off and found its way over to Palma.

Sebastian is a grand fiesta, but in purely traditional terms, it isn't particularly traditional, unless, that is, one accepts that tradition can be 40 years old or less.

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