La Fiesta de Santa Marta. Read about the strange and unusual festival in Galicia, where people are carried around the village of As Nieves in coffins.
Spanish celebrations can sometimes be a little wacky. In Spain, you can participate in festivals where we fight with tomatoes in the town square, run with bulls down cobblestone streets, burn giant statues in the middle of the city, listen to thousands of tamborileros drum and the list goes on. But there is one festival that has to be the absolute strangest: La Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme.
Galicia, the most isolated region in peninsular Spain, is a land known for its pagan past, witchcraft, and general belief in the supernatural. As has happened in other parts of the world, the Catholic Church incorporated these mystical beliefs and combined them with their traditions and doctrine. Fruit of this combination is this festival that uses Saint Martha, the patron saint of resurrections, to celebrate the people that have experienced a near death experience.
Every year, on July 29, the little village of As Nieves, in the province of Pontevedra, celebrates those people that almost passed on with a procession that winds through the town. Unlike typical processions, the pasos we know from Holy Week are not used here. This prcocession uses coffins instead and these coffins aren’t empty! Inside, carried above the crowd, are people who have had a near death experience the previous year and the the coffin is used as a symbol of their truncated journey towards the light.
Once they have paraded through the town they go to the small church to celebrate mass. After that, the procession continues to the town cemetery and then back to the church. This is when a statue of Saint Martha joins the procession to the chant of ‘Virgin Santa Martha, star of the North, we bring you those who saw death’ spoken by the crowd. The participants then offer their thanks by giving an offering, usually in the form of money, to the saint.
Now, accompanied by loud fireworks, bands, and plenty of food and drink the fortunate tell the crowd their tales of how they cheated death—often in language that would make most people, especially the priest, blush. The rest of the day is spent celebrating life with friendly people, great food and plenty of drink. There will be plenty of Pulpo a Feira (octopus), a Galician delicacy, cooked in copper cauldrons along with other Galician specialties to be had in the numerous food stalls and in the tascas(bars) you will be able to sample the local Albariño wine or drink a cold beer while navigating the stands full of religious icons.
Even though this can be considered a weird and unique festival, it has a lot in common with other Spanish festivals in that it is a celebration of life and our good fortune to be here to celebrate it among family and friends.