Monday, April 18, 2016

The Changing Traditions Of Fiestas

The Mallorcan fiesta is an all-year-round occurrence. Arguably, it is never more spectacular than in January, a month when comparatively few visitors witness the demonic happenings on behalf of the saints Antony and Sebastian, breathe in the smoke of the bonfires and listen to the music - contemporary and ancient - in squares across the island. But it is summer that is most closely associated with fiesta. The word has an almost onomatopoeic quality: its sound is one of summer suffused with vibrant colours, embraced by the heat of the night and the literalism of its meaning - party.

The fiesta is of course more than its contemporary manifestations of DJs, Zumba sessions and children's entertainment gangs. It is tradition, rooted in religious ceremonies and in the idiosyncrasies of island culture. In the recent past - since the late 1970s at least - it has also been the heartbeat of revivalism. The soul of Mallorca was rediscovered. From the ashes of industrial upheaval that caused migration from the fields to the tourist empires of the coasts came the Phoenix of the return of traditional symbols - the instruments (such as the xeremia pipes), the curious and the bizarre (demons, big heads), the folk dances in their various guises. None of this had died out, but much of it had become sidelined in the rush towards a new age of touristic gold in the (some anyway) manufactured resorts.

This process of rediscovery over the past four decades or so has to be considered in the context of current-day developments. They are ones which seek to amend tradition or even eliminate it. And they all come with degrees of argument or controversy attached.

In the town of Alaro, for example, the town hall wants women to be part of the cossier folk dance troupe. Heaven forfend! The townsfolk are said to be divided on the matter, though there appear to be more in favour than against. In an age of equality, the majority view is likely to prevail, and who is to say that it should not. The Alaro case, however, and when set against other arguments, can seem minor, for there are more controversial matters at stake.

Take Soller and its Firó fiesta in May. The showpiece is the Moors and Christians battle, the grandest of all the island battles between invaders and defenders. Bar owners in the Plaça Constitució, the setting for the climax, are unhappy at proposals that they close for a time. Theirs is a commercial controversy, not one to do with tradition. There is another: the simulation of the hanging of peasants by the invading Moors. There have been calls for this to be stopped. They have been made not on the grounds of any political correctness but because of the sensitivities of some: psychological effects or sad reminders of a suicide. The town hall has listened. The hangings will continue.

And then there are fiestas with animals. The controversy is being played out in the Balearic parliament. An amendment to the animal protection act would see the end to any fiesta display that might entail animal suffering. Principally and most obviously this refers to bulls; indeed, bulls are the reason why the amendment is to come before parliament and will surely be approved.

Bullfighting will cease to be. Some will lament its passing. Many more will not. But the ban raises a question about tradition. Is tradition finite? Can it be said to be outdated and to have run its course? There is almost certainly a majority view that it can and should be consigned to the past when it involves bulls. But the people of Fornalutx, with its bull-run the centrepiece of the summer fiesta, are less inclined to this view. While outsiders look on and see barbarism, the villagers see tradition. It will be banned.

But the amendment may affect all manner of other fiesta traditions. Will the live cockerel at the summit of Pollensa's greasy pine of Sant Antoni become history? There are those who have made the case in the past for it being so. They have invoked the ban (now some ten years old) regarding the release of live ducks for the Can Picafort swim of high summer. Yet there is a rule that applies. More than one hundred years of tradition, and the animal tradition is permitted. This is the case in Pollensa but is not in Can Picafort.

There is no rule which says that tradition has to be for all time. No rule which says that tradition cannot be amended. There are traditions worth fighting for and maintaining. There are others which are not.

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