Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain:
Feast of the Assumption




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On the fifteenth of August, in the middle of the month when half of Spain already seems to be on their annual holidays, there is a national bank holiday. It’s to celebrate the feast of the Assumption, an event which, just like the Immaculate Conception back in December, is problematic for many non-Catholic Christians, and similarly centres on the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The problem with Mary is that the New Testament is frustratingly short on detail about her, yet for Catholics she is a key figure: she was, after all, the woman chosen to bear the Son of God. What happened to her at the end of this great story? Surely she couldn’t just fade into the background? The Bible has little to say, so unsurprisingly various stories concerning Mary’s later life appeared. One of the best known is told by Saint John of Damascus, who recounts that, a few years after Christ’s Ascension, the Apostles witnessed Mary’s death and burial, but that they subsequently found her tomb empty.Their conclusion? That she must have been taken physically up to heaven.

Indeed, when we consider how widely dispersed are the relics and tombs of all manner of saints, it’s strange that nowhere in Christendom claims to be her burial place, nor even to have any relic of her. Can we conclude that there weren’t any to have because, as St John of Damascus wrote, she was taken up to heaven? Certainly there has long been a widespread belief in the idea and in 1950 Pope Pius XII, after weighing up the evidence and consulting with bishops worldwide, decreed that, ‘having completed the course of her earthly life, (she) was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory’ and that this belief was infallible dogma.

Notice there is a neat avoidance of saying Mary actually died, and August 15th was for a long time the feast simply of Mary’s ‘dormition’, or falling asleep, not her death. But what evidence could Pius use to take his decision? He certainly did not use any of the various apocryphal accounts that exist, not even that of John of Damascus. The reasoning seems to be similar to that which justifies the Immaculate Conception, ie the Bible implies her Assumption. If she was conceived without sin, the argument goes, she should not be subject to the physical corruption of her body in the grave that all sinners undergo. It was, moreover, surely impossible to imagine Jesus allowing the body of the woman that carried Him in her womb to decompose. It was only fitting, therefore, that her body should have the special privilege of going to heaven along with her soul, thus also providing a useful symbol for the future: her Assumption reassures believers that one day they too will be physically raised up from the grave and taken to heaven. The whole idea appeals to the need in many people to believe in immortality, and in fact the feast is one of the most joyous and optimistic in the calendar, because it shows God’s gift to us of salvation and glory in heaven.

If you find all this hard to follow, well, says the Roman Catholic Church, we were founded by Christ and we are guided in our teachings by the Holy Spirit, so if we state something to be definitely true, a dogma, then it must be true, even if not explicitly stated in the Bible. It’s true because we say so, in other words.

Celebrations in Cómpeta and Almuñécar

Over in Cómpeta on Assumption day they busy themselves with more worldly concerns, by celebrating their ‘wine night’ or ‘noche de vino’. In fact things get under way much earlier in the day: there’s a Mass in honour of the Virgin, the village’s patron, there’s a demonstration of grape-pressing (the grape being the muscat or ‘moscatel’ variety that grows so well here), plus there’s free wine-tasting, free food... It’s perhaps not surprising that this fiesta has become a major tourist attraction. Plenty of atmosphere is provided by folk singers and dance groups, and things go on well into the evening. It all has its roots, apparently, in former celebrations of the vendimia or grape harvest, which would start on the 15th and would involve the pickers being away from home for a couple of months.

Meanwhile, over in Almuñécar, their annual fair will be reaching its climax on this day, as it has done for centuries. The town’s patron, called la Virgen de la Antigua, is honoured by a procession, a trip out to sea, and a spectacular firework display, before being taken back to her home in the Encarnación church.



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