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Fiesta of Saint Mark PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 02 March 2009 13:22

The festival of Saint Mark the Evangelist is celebrated annually in Agulo on the 24th and 25th of April in honor of the patron saint of the municipality. One week later the celebrations end with a finishing act known as La Octava de San Marcos. The festival is a popular deep-rooted tradition which goes back almost to the founding times of Agulo, although there are no written references to establish the beginning precisely. This festival and events that comprise it have some characteristics and values that make it unique in the Archipelago, constituting an active and attractive cultural heritage of the first order for the municipality of Agulo and the island of La Gomera.

The devotion to Saint Mark is directly linked with the period of colonization and settlement of Agulo, which occurred in the early decades of the 17th century, and specifically with the customs of families from the Daute region (NW Tenerife) who settled in the place. These families of settlers brought with them the image of Saint Mark and erected a hermitage in his honor. The statue is of particular value, since much of it is modeled with the glued cloths technique - namely the head, hands and feet - and the wooden centerpiece is made of pinzapo tree, which is characteristic of the Andalusian region. St. Mark's relationship with the first settlers of Agulo was very close, as we find that he is the patron saint of Icod de los Vinos and was devoted from the time of the conquest of Tenerife. Nor can we ignore that today there are place names that are common in both Agulo and the Daute area, such as Las Casitas, Las Canales, La Montañeta, El Puerto, etc.

The main events that make up the tradition are two: first and most important, is the night of Saint Mark, when the bonfires are leapt, and a week later, the so-called La Octava de San Marcos, when the saint is taken down to the beach of San Marcos. Every year on the 24th of April one of the most magical nights of the Island of La Gomera takes place, as it is the eve of Saint Mark which is when the traditional bonfires are leaped. This is a festive and religious gathering, which confirms each year an ancient tradition that has transcended generations, and whose ritual is preserved as before, including the characteristic smell of juniper trunk of the streets during the burning, witnessing the fervour and affection towards the popular patron saint.

The bonfires of Saint Mark are the characteristic emblem of the patronal festival of Agulo, and consist of the construction of a series of skillfully assembled bonfires made of juniper wood, which are placed in the town's main street bordering the church square. Once lit, they are leaped at high speed by dozens of people, who pass through the flames in the presence of the patron saint, who observes as his faithful believers jump through the impressive columns of fire in his honor. As well as seeking the protection of the saint it is also known, by oral tradition, that the ancestors asked favors of the patron saint, and in return they promised that on the eve of Saint Mark they'd carry a load of juniper firewood and make him a bonfire for that favor.

The Canary juniper (Juniperus turbinata ssp. canariensis) is one of the most characteristic plants of the insular flora. It is a tree species with a dense, dark green crown which can reach up to 4-5 metres, although there are large specimens which exceed 8 metres of height. It is found as part of the thermophilic vegetation, along with other species such as wild olives and mastic trees, in the lower highlands of the insular territory, reaching near-coastal areas. The juniper wood burns even when green and its aroma is so intense and pleasant, that during the night when the bonfires are lit the village is surrounded by an aureole of soft and pleasant smelling odor. Given that juniper scrub is located in areas of adverse terrain and difficult access, there were people who were engaged in cutting it and then selling these loads of firewood to the people who had made promises to the saint.

When the night falls, and to the sound of chácaras and drums, the saint is taken from the temple and placed on a portable platform in the square, while the church bells peal and the crowd shouts "Fire, fire!" prior to the lighting of the flame. All this occurs while the traditional tajaraste dance sounds in front of the figure of the patron saint. Once the bonfires are lit, the jumpers enter the scene. It is said that the leap is regarded as an act of manhood, so the higher the bonfires are and the more they jump over them, the more men they are. Thus, one by one, the jumpers leap through the series of fires, returning to the start to jump again.

After almost an hour of fire and sweat the pyres have used up their radiance, but even so the sound of chácaras and drums continues, as tens of men and women follow with gestures of emotion the impressive rhythm of one of the oldest folkloric expressions of the Canary Islands. While the saint returns again into the church, the festival acquires its more pagan facet, as the most ancient tradition gives way to an open-air dance, in which people of all ages participate.

The festival of Saint Mark in Agulo does not end on the 25th of April. Eight days after this date, in the mid-morning, people gather in the parish to bear the image of the patron saint down to the beach of San Marcos. As soon as the image arrives to the beach it is taken to the shore. There an offering of flowers is made in memory of the villagers who disappeared at sea and who are gone. Later a mass is celebrated and then the brotherhood food takes place. The day culminates with the return of the image of Saint Mark in the parish, accompanied by villagers who jubilantly cheer for their patron saint and their town Agulo.