Moors and Christians Fiesta

Moors and Christians Fiesta

Type of Holiday: Historic
Date of Observation: April 22-24
Where Celebrated: Spain
Symbols and Customs: Costumes, Entradas, Filaes, Mock Battle, St. George
Related Holidays: St. George's Day

ORIGINS

The Moors, who were Muslims from Northern Africa, conquered Spain in the eighth century, but by the late 1200s they had lost most of the territory they'd gained to the Christians, with whom they were constantly doing battle. By the end of the fifteenth century Spain was a Christian country under the Catholic rule of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Dozens of Moors and Christians fiestas are held throughout Spain at varying times of the year to commemorate the Christians' victory, and traces of them can even be seen in the celebrations of other countries where the Spanish influence remains strong. But none is more elaborate or colorful than the Moors and Christians Fiesta held in Alcoy, in the southeastern province of Alicante, Spain, on April 22-24.

The date of the festival has less to do with the day on which, in 1276, the Christians defeated the Moorish leader, Al-Azraq, than with the fact that April 23 is ST. GEORGE'S DAY. According to legend, the Moors seized the castle of Alcoy in the morning and were on the verge of winning the battle. But then the Christians made a fervent appeal to ST . GEORGE and were able to reverse their fortunes in the afternoon.

The Moors and Christians Fiesta is a festival that commemorates a significant historical event. Peoples throughout the world commemorate such significant events in their histories through holidays and festivals. Often, these are events that are important for an entire nation and become widely observed. The marking of such anniversaries serve not only to honor the values represented by the person or event commemorated, but also to strengthen and reinforce communal bonds of national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Victorious, joyful, and traumatic events are remembered through historic holidays. The commemorative expression reflects the original event through festive celebration or solemn ritual. Reenactments are common activities at historical holiday and festival gatherings, seeking to bring the past alive in the present.

Today the celebration of this event begins when a papier-mâché castle is built in Alcoy's main plaza. The first day of the fiesta opens with a special Mass for all those who will participate in the MOCK BATTLE , followed by the colorful ENTRADAS or entry parades as the companies of Moorish and Christian soldiers, known as FILAES , march into the city accompanied by bands. On the second day, St. George's relics are moved from his temple to the Church of Santa Maria, where another Mass is held. A second procession is held later in the day to return the relics to the temple, after which there is a huge display of fireworks. The battle itself takes place on the third day. After a messenger on horseback announces the confrontation that is about to take place, the two armies roam the streets firing muskets at one another that leave a dense fog of gunpowder and make enough noise to be heard far beyond the city limits. The Moors seize the castle by mid-morning and hoist their flag on the ramparts; but in the afternoon, after St. George appears on his white horse, the Moors retreat and the Christians become the victors.

In the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, the battle between the Moors and Christians was performed as a dance-drama, complete with music, costumes, and spoken dialogue. It was known as the "Dance of the Conquest," and it can still be seen in some locations. But commemoration in the form of a mock battle has proved to be far more popular.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Costumes

The elaborate costumes worn by the soldiers participating in the MOCK BATTLE between the Moors and the Christians are not strictly historical; if anything, they tend to be fanciful and flamboyant-particularly those worn by the Moors. Many of the costumes are made from expensive silks and brocades, with jewel-encrusted swords and fancy helmets. The costumes cost so much, in fact, that many members of the FILAES or armies have to save their money all year to pay for them. After the fiesta in Alcoy is over, the captains of these armies often donate their costumes to the local Moors and Christians museum.

These modern-day soldiers are allowed to wear wristwatches and eyeglasses but must otherwise avoid anything that looks contemporary. The huge cigars that they hold in their mouths are another interesting costume tradition, although its source is unknown.

Entradas

The entradas-which means "entries" or entry processions-that take place on the morning and afternoon on the first day of the fiesta are basically an opportunity for members of the FILAES to show off their COSTUMES . The Christians enter the city first, while the Moors come later in the day. Tourists and townspeople gather along the streets to watch these magnificent parades, which can be even more spectacular than the fighting that follows.

Filaes

There are fourteen filaes or armies-fourteen Christian and fourteen Moorish- that participate in the fiesta. Membership in these groups is more than a once-ayear commitment, as meetings are held throughout the year to plan and raise money for the event. Many of the members pay for their costumes out of their own pockets, but the competition among the various filaes to be the "best dressed" is so intense that most feel it is worth it. Some people sign their children up for membership in the filaes at birth, so the loyalties to various groups run deep and are often passed on to the next generation.

Although no one is exactly sure how the filaes originated, they are believed to date back to the seventeenth century, when many Spanish towns established their own militias to fight the Barbary pirates. One of the biggest problems facing today's filaes is where to find enough horses, since most of the farmers in the countryside around Alcoy use tractors.

Mock Battle

The mock battle that is the highlight of the Moors and Christians Fiesta represents a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages, when men liked to dress up as soldiers and engage in make-believe combat, with plenty of gunpowder to create the right "special effects." Whatever historical information has survived about the 1276 conflict on which the mock battle in Alcoy is based has been largely forgotten by the organizers of the modern-day festival, who see it as symbolic of the battle between Good and Evil, with Evil (i.e., the Moors) winning the upper hand for a while but eventually succumbing to the power of Good (the Christians).

St. George

St. George is the patron saint of Alcoy, the city he is believed to have saved from the Moors in 1276. He is usually seen riding his white horse-traditionally regarded as a symbolic messenger from the world of the dead-and he appears near the end of the MOCK BATTLE as a kind of ghost or apparition on the ramparts of the castle, signifying the power of Christianity to overcome all odds.

FURTHER READING

Epton, Nina. Spanish Fiestas. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1969. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Merin, Jennifer, and Elizabeth B. Burdick. International Directory of Theatre, Dance, and Folklore Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.

WEB SITE

Turespaña (Fiestas de Moros y Christians) www.spain.info/TourSpain/Eventos/Fiestas/?language=EN

Moors and Christians Fiesta

April 22-24
Moors and Christians fiestas are celebrated throughout the year all over Spain to commemorate various battles between the two groups. But it is the Fiesta of Alcoy in the province of Alicante that is one of the most colorful. Coinciding with the feast day of St. George on April 23, the fiesta commemorates the victory of the Christians over the Moorish leader al-Azraq in 1276.
The three-day event begins on the morning of April 22 with the ceremonial entry of the Christians, symbolizing the forces that assembled to defend the town of Alcoy in the 13th century. The Moors arrive in the afternoon, dressed in exotic Oriental costumes. On April 23 the relic of St. George is carried in procession from his temple to the parish Church of Santa Maria, where a mass is sung. On the third day the battle is reenacted and an apparition of St. George appears on the battlements of the castle.
In the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, fiestas of Moors and Christians were danced. It is believed that this type of celebration eventually crossed the sea to England and became the familiar Morris dance.
CONTACTS:
Tourist Office of Spain
666 Fifth Ave., Fl. 35
New York, NY 10103
212-265-8822; fax: 212-265-8864
www.okspain.org
SOURCES:
HolSymbols-2009, p. 598
IntlThFolk-1979, p. 332
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