The Fiesta Which Shouldn't Be
It's the procession for La Beata in Santa Margalida today: the most representative (typical) procession of all Majorca's processions, so they say. It isn't the only procession for Santa Catalina Thomàs (other spellings of her surname are available), but this one outdoes the others. Valldemossa's in July comes close, but Valldemossa's procession is for La Beateta, the saint as a small girl. In Santa Margalida she has grown up.
Why, you may wonder, do they say it's the most representative of processions? Well, one reason is that it is unique. Yes, there are other La Beatas but nothing like this one. Most representative, most typical, unique; they all refer to an occasion that is representative of a Majorca association with the church that historically has displayed irreverence and opposition: the Majorcan way. The Sibil-la chant of Christmas Eve is an example of this centuries-old way. Santa Margalida's procession is another, even if its tradition is only a couple of centuries old.
Beatified in 1792 (and canonised in 1930), the procession was first documented in 1829. Eleven years later there was a description of it. A scholar, Antoni Furió, referred to the role of the demons. It was the demons who were to incur the wrath of the Bishop of Majorca, Rafael Manso.
The procession has always been held on the first Sunday of September. On 29 August 1849, so just prior to it taking place, the bishop sent a letter to the parish of Santa Margalida. It had come to his attention that it was customary to each year celebrate the festivity of the Blessed Catalina Thomàs with a procession that doesn't conclude until after dark. Moreover, the bishop noted, there are scenes in which a devil is in disguise. He, the devil, persecutes and intends to kill the Blessed, but his appearance gives rise to laughter and to the distraction of the faithful. Holy aspects are open to ridicule. There are serious disorders and offences against God.
The bishop continued by saying that something this profane cannot be tolerated as a religious act. The demons would have to go, and the parish was told, in no uncertain terms, that the procession and other acts must finish by sunset.
This was stern stuff, but the people of Santa Margalida were made of sterner stuff. They basically ignored the bishop, who in any event was to soon move on to a post in Zamora. The bishopric, it would seem, let the matter drop.
But how had the procession ever come about? Unlike Valldemossa, where Catalina Thomàs was born, there was absolutely no link between her and Santa Margalida. The procession and the fiesta that now is really had little reason to take place in the town.
No one to this day can truly figure out why it does. Yes, there would have been celebrations for Catalina in different parts of Majorca, but these would typically have honoured her birth, death or beatification, none of which applied to early September. The only explanation as to the timing has to do with harvests; there may well have already been some form of harvest festival. As to the procession itself, it appears to be based on a folk rhyme, one about Catalina, who was taking food to some poor harvesters when an envious demon snatched her jar, smashed it and buried it, only for Catalina to retrieve the food, which turned out to be even tastier than prior to the demon's intervention. This rhyme may have been specific to Santa Margalida, though why it would have been is unclear. But somehow it seems as if it ended up as a procession, and again to emphasise the essentially quasi-religious (at most) aspect of it, the procession was a form of comedy. The demon was the object of mirth. Bishop Manso had been rather po-faced.
The procession retains this comedic element. The demons smash jars (jugs, pitchers, call them what you like) at the feet of the Blessed (and others). The Blessed is undeterred and not tempted into being diverted from her great piety by this demonic carry-on. The demons themselves are unlike other demons. They most certainly are not of the fiery trident variety: the town's Hiachat demons take care of the correfoc. Instead, they are almost reminiscent of the mediaeval fool or jester. And the jester, it might be noted, had all but died out in Europe by the turn of the nineteenth century. In Spain, it hadn't.
Today, therefore, they'll be at it again. Jars will be smashed, spectators and participants will smile and laugh. It's the fiesta that shouldn't be. Catalina isn't a patron, she never set foot in Santa Margalida, but a rhyme caught on, and nowadays Majorca turns out for this most representative of processions. The town hall sends out invitations to dignitaries. Even the bishop might get one.