When the saint comes dancing in

Normally, on a weekday morning, I’d wake up to the sounds of daily life in the village.  A car revving up and reversing down the street. The neighbours shouting buenos dias as they go off to do their early morning chores. The bread van pulling up on the corner of the plaza.

But, today is different. It’s a public holiday in the village in honour of the patron saint, San Blas (Saint Blaise) and it’s quiet all around. The first time I saw this festival it was barely daylight and I was sleepily making my first cup of tea when I heard a loud noise outside.

‘That sounds like the cymbal from a brass band,’ says my brain trying to figure out what it is.

It is definitely music and it is certainly lively for the time of day. I slide open the window and stick my head out. To my surprise, there is a brass band on the corner of the street. It’s not a big brass band, there are just five musicians (known locally as a ‘charanga’).  They are playing up-to-date tunes that get me tapping my foot along as I watch them.  I run back into the bedroom to tell Benjamin who pulls the pillow over his head and goes back to sleep. I go back to the kitchen and start to dance around to the rhythm. If only every day started off this jolly. I am reminded of the times I have been called a ‘morning person’ and realise that this jolliness might not be everyone’s morning cup of tea. Despite this, I stick my head out of the window and clap along to the rhythm. It’s drizzling and the clouds look menacing.

An umbrella with legs comes along the street from the direction of the church.benaocaz clouds

“Morning” shouts out a female voice in English from underneath. I realise it is Susie, the lady who makes the costumes for film sets and has a house in the village.

“I think I am the only one mad enough to follow them round in the rain,” she laughs.

The band finish their tune and Suzie and I give them a large round of applause. Benjamin has stuck his head out of the window by now and the three of us appear to be the only ones interested in the music. The band shout out their thanks to their mini audience and move on to the next corner with Susie trailing behind.

Later, we hear the villagers making their way to mass. At 12.00 the church bells start to ring. When they have finished we hear the same brass band blaring out from inside the church walls. The party tunes can be heard all down our street. Benjamin and I look at each other in surprise.  We run along the road to the church and push open the heavy church door to find ourselves in the middle of a full-on celebration. Mass is normally a sombre service and this burst of lively activity gets us staring in amazement.

Today, February 3rd, it’s San Blas Day in Benaocaz. San Blas is a special saint in Benaocaz and not just because he is co-patron of this small village. He shares that honour with San Anton. cartel San Blas 2017

Most Spanish processions and Saint’s days I have witnessed tend to be a serious affair. The Patron Saint or Virgin are usually decorated with flowers. They are then carried around accompanied by a band playing sombre music that fills the atmosphere with an air of religious respect.

san blas being carried cropped
Saint Blas being carried around the church

Not so for San Blas.

He must be the liveliest saint I have ever seen in Spain.

Four young men are holding San Blas on their shoulders and dancing around the church to the rhythm of the band. The whole village appears to be here and the atmosphere is electric.

“Venga! Come on in,” shouts our neighbour, who has spotted us in the doorway.

If I hadn’t walked in through the wooden door, I would never have believed that I was in church. San Blas comes dancing past us. He bobs up and down as the rhythm gets faster. The guys holding him up dance a few steps backwards and then swirl around with him. Everyone is clapping and dancing too. The elderly people start to form a queue and before I know it they are all weaving their way under the Saint and out on the other side. The children follow suit. And next, the band, instruments included and still playing, dance their way underneath him. San Blas then moves off at a fast pace down the church and back up again.

Saint Blas making his way through the crowd
Saint Blas making his way through the crowd

More people weave in and out underneath. I wave across the church at a friend who is busy taking photos. She dances her way across to me. “Isn’t it fun?” she laughs in between taking photos. I spot the lady from the bakery and ask her, shouting above the music, how they decide who will carry the Saint. I know in other towns there’s often a waiting list for this honour. She explains that it is always the young people who are 21 that year.

“It used to always be the males, but now the girls get a go too. It’s my turn in a minute,” she smiles proudly.

san blas and band cropped
San Blas is held up high for the brass band to go underneath

Five minutes later, true to her word, the band pauses and there’s a quick change over. The females of the village, who are 21 this year, take hold of San Blas. It’s no easy feat, as although he is small for an effigy (designed especially for these narrow streets), he must still weigh a ton.

The ladies dance around with him before handing him back to the men. Suddenly, they stop somewhere near the altar and the latest new parents approach with their babies. Babies are held up  to San Blas’ robe for good luck.

Traditionally, San Blas is carried around the streets and the party and dancing take place outside. The weather has meant that he remained indoors. The robes he wears are delicate antiques and would get spoilt in the rain. The weather doesn’t appear to have dampened his spirits though, or those of the villagers. The party goes on for a while and the music is infectious. When San Blas’ dancing sequence is finally over, he is placed carefully at the back of the church and everyone dances out onto the street. The brass band are still playing and head for the main square where a marquee has been set up for the afternoon and evening’s entertainment.

The party goes on well into the evening, despite the fact that San Blas retires hours before. I imagine he was exhausted after all that exercise. San Blas is the protector of throats, and after all the singing and dancing that takes place in Plaza, he might well be called upon more than once.

Feliz dia de San Blas, Benaocaz!