When we first moved to La Rioja in 1983, we were amazed to see our neighbors unloading crates of fruit and vegetables from their cars every Sunday afternoon. All of this produce came from the villages where their ancestors had lived and where their descendants had inherited a house and a garden.
Of course since neither my wife nor I were from Rioja, we didn’t have our own village or ‘pueblo’ here, but soon, one adopted us. After we bought our first apartment in Logroño, a couple who lived in the same building whose son was in the same school class as our son, invited us to their ‘pueblo’, Munilla in Rioja Baja. We’ve been visiting for thirty years and have made a lot of friends who have homes there. We even bring produce back home, even if it’s a present from someone else who has a garden!
One of the most endearing traditions in Spain is that each province, city and village has its own patron saint or professes devotion to a martyr or virgin. In La Rioja, the wine festival is in honor of St. Matthew (San Mateo). In Pamplona, it’s San Fermín, in Madrid, San Isidro. In Munilla, a custom is to celebrate Mass on or the first Sunday after January 17, the feast of St. Anthony Abbot (San Antonio Abad or San Antón), who, as most Catholics know, is the patron saint of animals. This year, the Mass in his honor was yesterday.
The beautiful little church was mostly filled with women (most of the men waited outside, another Spanish custom), and after Mass, the doors opened and the church filled up with people and their pets. Most are dogs but iguanas, turtles and some rare South American mammals have also been spotted from time to time. The priest blessed the animals one by one by sprinkling holy water over them.
Afterwards, a wooden statue of St. Anthony was paraded around the square and an auction of gifts held to help pay for the renovation of the church. Someone usually donates a rooster in a cardboard box that is placed in front of the altar along with the rest of the gifts to be auctioned off. Last year, it started to crow during the sermon, forcing the priest to cut it short and this year he promised to stop if the rooster crowed again. The rooster crowed on cue but the priest, who was on a roll with the sermon, kept talking. The parishioners laughed.
After the auction, we all went to the casino for a communal lunch, followed by a long walk around the village. Then everyone closed up their houses and returned to their usual place of residence.
Traditions such as this are an invaluable way of assuring that the thousands of small villages around Spain remain alive. Fifty or a hundred years ago, towns like Munilla were the centers of Spain’s agricultural and small business economy. In Munilla, it was textiles and shoes. However, with Spain’s industrialization came a mass exodus from the pueblos to Logroño, Madrid, Barcelona and abroad. Even though these little towns are practically empty during the week, on weekends, holidays and summer vacations, they resonate with activity.
Most of us come from big cities, but the ‘pueblo’ is an important part of our lives as an escape from the daily grind and a reminder of another simpler, but much harder time.