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
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 Coruña 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
The Local Version
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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!