Of the many events that crowd the Pitiusan summer agenda, Saint James' Day
carries double importance. For completely different reasons, this day is both
a local and a national holiday. In its widest sphere of observance, Saint James
is celebrated across the whole of Spain as the country's patron saint as well
as the patron saint of travellers. At the local level, the occasion signals
a colourful homespun fiesta on the tiny isle of Formentera.
The National Version
In greater Spain this red-letter day is known as the Fiesta de Santiago and
is steeped in two thousand years of high religious history. Historically, Santiago
(i.e. Saint James) was the apostle who, in accordance with Jesus' injunction,
"Go ye out", went to Hispania and preached the gospel. From the Holy
Land, this faithful servant landed in Murcia where he founded the first Christian
church on Spanish soil (a little-known fact), and then continued on to Compostela
in La Coru˝a where today a magnificent Romanesque cathedral bears his name.
Throughout the centuries the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela has been a
powerful place of pilgrimage, drawing millions of devotees along the same road
('el camino de Compostela') that led the Nazarene's envoy to the farthest reaches
of the known world.
The Local Version
In Formentera, the name of the feast day is Sant Jaume, the Catalan equivalent
of Saint James. Unlike Santiago, the celebration is of relatively recent origin
and is unusually void of religious overtones. Its roots are thoroughly popular
and, in truth, the fiesta pays scant homage to the "saint behind the day".
Here is how it all began:
Due to a series of epidemics, most notably the Black Death, the island of Formentera
had to be completely evacuated from the latter half of the 14th century until
the tail end of the 17th century. With only 96 km2 of surface area, dead flat
in the main and utterly defenceless, the tiny spit of land was under continual
attack by Turkish and Moorish pirates.
When the Black Death struck, Formentera's fighting forces were debilitated
to the breaking point. Thus, despite much regret, an allegedly temporary retreat
was made to big sister, Ibiza. Once the worst of the virulence was over, the
waylaid settlers attempted to re-establish themselves on Formentera, evidence
of which is a little fortress-chapel ('sa Tanca Vella') built in 1362 In the
end, however, the precariousness of life on an unbastioned island proved insurmountable,
and the settlers returned once again to Ibiza. This time for good - or so it
seemed at the time.
In the absence of respectable citizenry, Formentera was overrun by pine trees
and pirates. For three centuries, sea rovers found in this little island a haven
beyond compare: no legal forces to contend with, deserted forests where spoils
could be stashed and numerous sandy stretches upon which to beach their vessels.
From across the Paso des Freus, the buccaneers would leisurely plan their strategies,
resorting habitually to a regular itinerary: Espalmador - Salinas - walled city.
Ibiza Fights Back
By the 17th century, the Ibicencos had taken about as much abuse as they could
stand. They gathered ships together (remember that one of Ibiza's lesser-known
industries was shipbuilding) and formed a counter-offensive of corsairs. The
islanders turned out to be extraordinarily fearsome fighters and over the years
managed to rid local waters of plunderers. By the end of the century, some islanders
even felt secure enough to reclaim Formentera for their own. A land grant given
by the King to Ibicenco, Marc Ferrer, in 1695 and another conceded to his son-in-law,
Toni Blanc in 1699, marked the return of civilization to the lesser isle.
Slowly, Ibicenco families began to trickle across the Paso des Freus to stake
their claims, and by the mid-18th century, there were an estimated 200 people
living in Formentera as permanent residents.
As it happened, many of these brave souls came from the Santa Eulalia area of
Ibiza, where, curiously, there was an inordinately high concentration of men
named Jaume. The result, logically, was that many of the new settlers in Formentera
were also called Jaume. In fact, some actually held Jaume as both a first and
a last name (e.g. Jaume Joan de Jaume).
July Lull in Farming
It also happens that the day of Sant Jaume falls within a short period of relative
repose from agricultural tasks - the fruit of San Juan has already been collected,
while the wheat has yet to ripen. Moreover, if unto this fortuitous state of
affairs, we add the benignancy of the summer sea, there was really only one
thing a sensible, 18th century Ibicenco could do in July: get in a boat and
pay a visit to his friends and family in Formentera. Then, when all the visiting
Jaumes and their families met up with all the long-lost Jaumes and their families,
it would have been humanly impossible not to rejoice to the fullest.
Out of these spontaneous beginnings grew today's holiday, considered the most
important in Formentera. It is even speculated that the first church built on
the island (1726) would have been dedicated to Sant Jaume (the priest was a
Jaume, too) had the Jesuits of the day not occupied such lofty spheres and ordained
the patronage of Sant Francis Xavier, one of the founders of their order.
What I most like about this fiesta is that its origins can be traced back to
true thanksgiving for a bountiful life. The pirates had been defeated and family
bonds now stretched safely and lovingly over the Paso des Freus. So, go ahead
and give yourself over to true celebration at Formentera's grand summer jubilee.
Like the 18th century Pitiusans, we have a lot to be thankful for!