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La Gomera’s present social calendar remains as firmly based on saints’ days and church celebrations as it was a hundred years ago.
Agulo - 15.05.2009
- St. Mark’s day in late April is one such day and was, until this year, one of the island’s best kept secrets. The recent bid by Agulo’s council to have the fiesta declared ‘of cultural interest to tourists’ has obviously done much to put it on the map. Although, thankfully, there was no great influx of tourists given that this is very much the low season, there was a marked increase in the press presence. A battery of cameras and microphones positioned itself between the crowd and the unlit fires. As always, in pursuit of the perfect picture for those at home, their presence prevented those who were there from seeing. But we panicked not. The fires were still unlit.
This unique fire jumping fiesta in the street around the church bearing his name, in the northern village of Agulo, did draw a bigger crowd than ever this St. Mark’s feast. The event took place, as always, on the ‘vispera’ of (night before) the saint’s day, which is on the twenty-fifth of March every year and this year, the vispera fell on a Friday night for the first time in many years, ensuring good attendance. Ten years ago, many islanders had never been to Agulo for this event. It was not well known. Now, largely due to the island’s T.V. EIMA channel, most islanders at least know of its existence, even if they have never been there. Whilst there may have been a desire to go, making the drive across the island to Agulo on tortuous roads for a couple of hours one midweek night is not an attractive prospect. At the subsequent fiesta in the little square beside the church, the people of Agulo, and the other northern towns Vallehermoso and Hermigua, usually have the square to themselves, as the few islanders from other towns leave after the jumping.
Setting off in relaxed fashion on a Friday evening for a bout of serious adventure and a great spectacle, followed by dancing till the early hours and a gentle meander home at day break, is a completely different matter. Hence the crowds.
The event, as always, was the main feature of a week of celebrations to mark the date. St. Mark is the patron saint of the little town and his anniversary is made much of. Various sporting and cultural events took place during the lead up to his day, with the collection of stored juniper wood from nearby mountains starting early on The Day. In the afternoon, a line of small bonfires was built along the cobbled main street next to the church and square, the town centre having previously been cleared of traffic. Small ‘kioscos’ (mobile fiesta bars) were erected next to the church and were duly stocked and the crowds began to arrive before dusk.
Agulo is a very pretty little town, full of old, Canarian houses along cobbled streets and it looked especially attractive with the typical San Marcos decorations this year. Whilst the older generation crowded into the church to hear the special mass, the town’s young men gathered at one end of the main street to wait for mass to finish. Meanwhile, both sides of the narrow street filled with onlookers anxious to find a good place to see everything and the waiting jumpers took up the chant, ‘fuego, fuego’ (fire.)
When the church service finished, the bells crashed and rang, St Mark’s statue was carried out to do a turn around the church, there was a burst of sound from tambores and chacaras (drums and castanets) and the fires were lit.
The first jumpers started to run down towards the bonfires and San Marcos 2009 was properly under way. This year’s fires, according to the experts, were -as always - bigger and better than ever and none of the frequently experienced difficulties in lighting them were experienced.
The younger men jumped first, with the flames still dangerously fierce. Older men, boys and girls followed suit as the fires died down.
When they had burnt down and the jumping was over, the popular practice of collecting ash from the fires took place. Sprinkling the ash on crops produces bumper crops, according to tradition. By Barbara Belt