The Blessing of The Animals Festival, San Sebastian Festival, on Tenerife Island in the Canary Islands is an annual event which occurs in January and early February depending on the location. Our guest expert from Tenerife Island, Linda Wainwright, was there for the hike and watched donkeys being pushed into the sea. Old traditions in Spain are part of the ancient spirit that connects modern Spain with its past.
It seemed like a good idea, a year ago, to join the townsfolk of Adeje for the pilgrimage in honor of San Sebastian, it would give me an insight into local life on Tenerife Island. I heard that this annual festival involves the ritual bathing of various animals in the ocean below, and knowing what a performance bathing my dog can be, it seemed like something I should witness.
Adeje is a fast-growing village, about ten minutes’ drive inland from the coast which bears its name (one that will resonate with visitors more than the hub of the municipality does – Costa Adeje, the jewel in the island’s tourist crown).
Our walk today will take us from the elegant church square of Santa Ursula downhill at a fast clip to the church of San Sebastian on the coast. It’s a route trodden thousands of times since Spain’s Conquest of Tenerife in 1496. Tons of sugar cane were carried down to the bay of La Caleta to be loaded onto ships for export. Sugar was the first major crop produced following colonization, though in later years the islands became more famous for wine production and then bananas, before mass tourism became king.
This morning has already taken on a typically Canarian feel. It’s a half hour passed the scheduled time, and although there are folk milling about, there is no one who seems to be an organizer, and still no bars open for coffee. Well, it is fiesta (a holiday among other meanings). Eventually, people in matching T-shirts arrive, and we begin to amble down the main road. It’s something you get used to, this mañana syndrome – the sheer ignoring of the clock ticking – it can be frustrating and loveable by turns.
We meander through the town, and cross the autopista (freeway) bridge, leaving traffic noise behind and begin the walk proper as we pass through the archway, El Portón. Although this pilgrimage has historical roots it had been abandoned in the stampede to develop the coast, but in recent years Tenerife, like so many places, is searching for and celebrating its roots and heritage, and so it was revived.
After El Portón the landscape is desert scrub. There are walled fincas (plantations) fairly close. It will take us around an hour from here, straight down. We could do it more quickly, but there are photo ops and a convivial atmosphere, which makes for slow going. It isn’t a difficult walk; there are elderly folk and young families with pushchairs; in the distance the sapphire ocean, and neighboring island, La Gomera, shimmering on the horizon.
A mirador (viewing point) has been created about five minutes into the trail, which provides a sweeping view of the landscape, and all along the way wild lavender lines our route. At one point we cross a small brook, a reminder that, although there is an air of spring, it is still winter here. In summer there will be no running water.
We pass an era, an old threshing circle, where yoked horses or oxen pulled giant stones around and around until grain and stalks separated.
Then we see a graceful rock formation curving like a frozen wave, sheltering a very simple stone altar and a cross. This is El Humilladero and here it was that a local village girl is said to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. Some of the older walkers stop to pray, but really this marks the end of our walk. Around the corner, and across the road is the church of San Sebastian and all the fun of the fair, cheek by jowl with some of the coast’s swankiest, new hotels. The incongruity isn’t lost on me.
Mass has begun and many of our fellow-walkers crowd in at the back of the church, but we forgo worship in favor of a cold beer and an empanada (a kind of fried pie, filled with minced chicken), and have just enough time to eat, and head down to the beach to get a good spot to watch the fun as the village animals are brought for a ceremonial dunking, another tradition which has recently been revived.
I am amazed at the number of people all along the headland and the length of the beach, like flies on a piece of meat, they have bagged every nook and cranny. I learn afterwards that an estimated 30,000 people watched the junket. Happily my camera seems to be the passport I need to get right down to the water’s edge.
The straggling procession arrives, headed by the town band, and some very elegant horsemen, some in traditional, Canarian dress, followed by donkeys wreathed in flowers, ponies and traps, whole herds of goats and sheep, and finally the statue of San Sebastian, on the shoulders of several strong men and true. Those elegant steeds are ridden straight into the water, riders heedless of the damp, but donkeys have to be coaxed and cajoled, and, well, just plain pushed and pulled to get their feet wet. The goats are easier to deal with; many are simply picked up and dunked by the goatherds. No animal is allowed to go unbathed.
All suitably cleansed, the procession winds off back to the church square, where San Sebastian and the local priest together bless them for the coming year, amid much wafting of incense. San Sebastian is said to ward off plagues and diseases, hence the bringing of animals to be protected.
Blessings done, the fiesta begins. We wander around the stalls, nibble at hotdogs and churros with chocolate, take a peak inside the tiny, original church which stood on this site, and mentally gear up for the walk back – that, remember, is uphill. The townsfolk will be drinking, eating and dancing in the square until the wee, small hours, no doubt joined by lots of tourists from the nearby posh hotels, who, surely, have seen nothing quite like this before.
Next year I’m heading for the island of La Gomera, whose capital is named for San Sebastian, so I’m expecting an exceptional fiesta. Sebastian, however, isn’t the only saint who has power to bless animals, San Antonio Abad (the timing of whose fiesta varies from village to village) is another, but best known on Tenerife is San Juan on June 23rd in Puerto de la Cruz, where the goat dunking begins early in the morning.
Winter is also an excellent time to visit the Canary Islands because of their warm weather. Mainland Spain is chilly until May, but the Canaries are gorgeous all year. Those interested in booking their cheap holidays to Spain this winter and early spring should check the Canaries first!
Linda likes to say that she is “re-inventing herself for her third age” these days. She transplanted to the Canary Islands more than 20 years ago. Now with kids grown up, leaving behind the 9 to 5, she studies writing and photography and is beginning to scratch a living from them, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. She blogs at IslandMomma.wordpress.com