ChefBud and I have just returned from a trip to New England. We were there for a very specific reason: to attend the 70th Annual Festa Ao Divino Espirito Santo in Forestdale, R.I. This festival was a huge part of my childhood. I remember my mother once expressing frustration because when my siblings and I were asked about our heritage we would always say Portuguese. In truth, we are only one quarter Portuguese and three quarters French. As children, we would say Portuguese because when it came down to it, that was the heritage we felt most connected with. Why was this? Probably because celebrating the Feast of the Holy Ghost was such an important part of our lives and it made us “feel” Portuguese. It tied us to a culture and a tradition that helped define what being Portuguese meant.
Every year on the first weekend of August my family would go to the festival grounds on Saturday night to watch Portuguese dancers in beautiful costumes. We listened to music in Portuguese and ate traditional Portuguese food.
The next morning would find us back for a parade to St. John’s church where during the mass a child would be crowned according to tradition. In 1983, when I was seven, i was that child.
After mass we would march back to the festival grounds where a traditional meal of cabbage soup, chourice and bread was served and anyone could eat for free. After lunch, an auction was held and thousands of dollars raised to go to charity.
Festa ao Divino Espirito Santo: The History Behind the Traditon
In the Azores, nine tiny islands just off the coast of Portugal, religious celebrations occur following the Catholic liturgical calendar. The people partake in both Easter and Christmas festivities as well as participating in two cycles of religious activities. One, in honor of each community’s patron saint, occurs during the growing season; the other, in honor of the Holy Ghost, occurs primarily during the eight weeks after Easter. This celebration, called Festa ao Divino Espirito Santo, translates to the Feast of the Holy Ghost
In Catholic theology, the trinity is made up of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Though in most ways Azoreans are traditional Catholics, devotion to the Holy Ghost is central to their religious system. Unlike the interrelated trinity of most Roman Catholics, Azoreans believe that the Holy Ghost is a separate deity; they consider him to be a powerful and vindictive male with a decidedly human personality and specific likes and dislikes. A dove with outstretched wings on top of a silver crown and a silver scepter symbolize the Holy Ghost to the people of the Azores
According to legend the origin of the festival dates back to Queen Isabela of Portugal, who reigned between 1295 and 1322. It is said that there were many poor and hungry people in Portugal at the time of her reign. This bothered Queen Isabela, and she pleaded with the Holy Ghost to help her starving people, even to the point of promising to sell all her jewels, including her crown. Sometime after this there suddenly appeared two ships in a Portuguese harbor. Neither of the ships had any living person upon it. The only contents were cattle on one ship and grain on the other. These ships were thought to be a miracle sent from the Holy Ghost in answer to Queen Isabela’s pleas. With this supply of cattle and grain, a large meal of meat and bread was prepared and a banquet served to the poor. From that date forward, an annual banquet for the poor was given in the same manner as the first. Queen Isabela continued to offer this yearly ceremony as a thanksgiving to the Holy Ghost for the peace bestowed within Portugal and for the health of the Portuguese people. The event continues to be observed and celebrated in almost the same fashion today as Queen Isabela celebrated it. Though today the holiday is not widely celebrated in continental Portugal, the festivities have spread to Bermuda, Canada, the United States, and Brazil, and still flourish in the Azores.
Today, the Feast of the Holy Ghost occurs in the eight weeks between Easter and Trinity Sunday. The celebration is managed by the Irmandade do Divino Espírito Santo, or the Brotherhood, who are responsible for caring for the Holy Ghost House and all the paraphernalia of the ritual during the year as well as sponsoring the festival itself. The Holy Ghost House is called the Império. These elaborately painted one-room buildings are divided into three parts by the placement of the door and two windows. Though they are permanent structures, Império’s are opened and used only once a year for the festival celebration.
The first part of the festival, função, occurs in the private homes of members of the Brotherhood. The previous year, the names of seven members would have been selected in a lottery. Starting at Easter, each person selected takes the crown and scepter with the dove as well as other ritual goods for one week. A banner of the Holy Ghost with fresh flowers placed in front of the home marks it as a ritual space and signifies that the Holy Ghost is there. The crown is installed on an altar decorated with flowers and candles. During this time, anyone may enter the house to worship, and each day of the week people gather to recite the rosary. This part of the celebration represents the payment of a personal promise to the Holy Ghost. During this week, the person who was selected to sponsor the crown must offer food and gifts to all those who come to worship. At the end of the week, the ceremony moves on to the next house according to the order which the lottery had dictated. The Crown circulates from house to house until each of the seven people chosen have hosted the Crown for one week and kept their personal promise to the Holy Ghost.
For the final week, the festival moves to the Império where the larger public holiday, bodo, happens. During the week, people bring gifts to put at the altar where the crown has been placed. Traditional gifts of sweet bread, fruit, cakes and live animals are left at the altar as well as a variety of other things. Throughout the entire week there is entertainment including singing, dancing, and bullfights. The week is a sacred time marked by excitement and extraordinary events. Firecrackers and rockets announce the beginning and the end of important activities and call people to the Império. Flags, flowers, and lights transform it temporarily into a sacred space for religious and social activities.
Ritual activities begin during the week before the coronation. Brotherhood members gather at the Império to visit the Holy Ghost, recite the Rosary, and pay their annual dues. The main part of the festival occurs on Trinity Sunday. The morning begins with a formal procession, Pezinho, from the Império to the church to attend Mass. There a child is symbolically crowned as Emperor before they head back to the Império. Then they partake in festa, the ceremonial distribution of meat, wine, and bread to the poor. By doing this, the people of Portugal are able to show their thanks to Queen Isabela’s desire to help the poor. The meal is followed by an auction where all the food and gifts donated throughout the week are sold. All the money raised is given to charity and to the poor. After the auction, a lottery is drawn to decide who will host the Crown the following year.
The entire ceremony is very religious; the people involved use it to express their thanks to the Holy Ghost and to keep the charity demonstrated by Queen Isabela alive. The ritualistic eight weeks of the holiday involve a tremendous amount of gift giving and food. The celebration, which has survived for many centuries, expresses the people’s desire for charity, devotion, reciprocity, cooperation, and competition.