Thursday, August 11, 2016

Much Ado About Everything: Weird Fiestas

The word fiesta is said to have first entered English (American) usage in 1844, though an almost identical word - "feste" - cropped up in Middle English from around the second half of the twelfth century. Some two hundred years later, Geoffrey Chaucer used "feste" in the context of Troilus's love for Criseyde. A hundred or so years before Chaucer, the Italian Dante Alighieri had used "festa". Both had connotations of earthly joy and heavenly happiness and both, naturally enough, were rooted in Latin.

The word was thus common to various languages, but in English it took a specific route and was to become "feast", as in saints' feast days. Chaucer's notion endured but only up to a point. There was joy and happiness on account of the celebration of a saint but any raucous element of such celebration was to die out. In Spain and Spain's colonies, however, the linguistic modification of "fiesta" was to take Chaucer and Dante's usages to whole new levels: heavenly happiness for the saint but a hell of a lot more joy for those still on Earth.

While American English was apparently infiltrated by "fiesta" 172 years ago, it is probably fair to say that for most British English speakers it wasn't a word to gain a great deal of currency until the Ford Motor Company offered one and the British headed for sunny Spain. Now well embedded in British English, a translation, as in party, doesn't do "fiesta" justification. It has its specific connotations that transcend a mere party.

Just as culture can reinvent meanings for words or give them additional nuance, so the things the words refer to can undergo transformation. The fiesta is very much a case in point, and "much" is even more to the point.

Time was that fiesta traditions in Mallorca determined that these traditions should not be tampered with. Demons are a prime example. Long ago they were allowed out only once a year and only in one place - Sa Pobla for its January fiestas for Sant Antoni. Despite traditionalists frowning on the spread of demons, fearing the tradition would be diluted, they did of course spread. Much later, when demons in Catalonia started brandishing tridents that whirled, made a heck of a racket and spat copious amounts of fire, the Sa Pobla demons swiftly followed suit. As did numerous other demons' gangs. The current "correfoc", an invention of the late 1970s, was thus born. Everyone was very joyful that it was and remain very joyful.

Fiestas in Mallorca haven't stagnated. Their developments do owe something to tourism in that they were decades ago looked upon as a means of attracting ever more tourists, but that touristic aspect has been superseded by the recognition that, above all else, fiestas are for local communities and are expressions of these communities. In line with this, there has been a process of reinvigoration and further transformation that is something of a social phenomenon.

Behind this are the young of Mallorca. Tempting it might be to suggest that new "fiestas" within fiestas are designed principally as excuses for drinking, but such temptation does no justice to the reclaiming of fiestas and indeed to a contemporary adaptation of traditional ways and customs. Accordingly, you have, among others, the almond-shell altercation of Petra, the grape battle of Binissalem or the melon mess of Vilafranca. And then you also have Sineu's Much.

Linguistically it might be nice to think that they'd dropped the "o" from "mucho" and adopted the English "much". Nice this might be, but it would be completely wrong to think this. Much (or "Muc") is a reference to a mythical bull which appears in the Mallorcan folk tales which the Manacor-born folkloricist Antoni Maria Alcover collected and began publishing some 130 years ago.

The tale of the Muc is characteristic of stories of giants, treasure and odd beasties and characters that Alcover compiled. Its setting is the "Puig de Reig" between Sineu and Sant Joan. There is treasure, the sipping of olive oil that has to be kept in the mouth while walking round the hill three times and a bull with candles on its horns who will guide whoever manages not to swallow the oil to the treasure. That's it in its basic form. There's a great deal more.

The Muc/Much fiesta started in 2004. Since then, it has grafted on all manner of elements in acquiring the status as, to use local parlance, the most "friki" of all summer fiesta events. It starts at 10am and goes on all day (this Sunday), and it is legitimate to say that it is freaky or downright weird. It also attracts people in their thousands.

Fiestas take on new meanings but at the same time they can invoke the spirits of long ago and the superstitions and tales of folklore about which Chaucer knew a thing or two.

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