A Non-Festive Fiesta

July 21, 2020

The first rockets went off as anticipated at 6.00 am. But apart from that, the festival of Santa Maria Magdalena isn’t happening the way it always does

Mary Magdalene was made matron saint of this village, I understand, because it was previously dedicated to the mother of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent. There are several different versions of his legend and of his specific parentage, but it was deemed necessary to place this small community under the tutelage of a famously penitent woman to expunge the memory of the pagan goddess. I can’t say how long this has been the state of things, and Amatlan has only recently grown beyond a population of a couple of hundred people, but every year the place would go crazy around July 22. Simply driving in or out of the village could take ten minutes longer than usual, with all the visitors’ cars blocking the streets and laneways.


The main street during the fiesta, in a more usual year.

The fiesta always starts the day before the feast day, with a salvo of cohetes, the explosive rockets beloved by the faithful here, and loathed by many other people and all dogs. But where in other years the main street would be lined with stalls selling trinkets, kids’ toys, t-shirts, pizza and beer, this year there are only four or five such puestos in place. And I doubt they’re getting customers. The small midway that is usually set up behind the church is completely absent.

Fiesta puestos.jpg

The stalls set up for the fiesta this year – all four of them

People here have become resigned to their church being closed, though this evening there is a prayer service being held there. Apart from the occasional funeral, it’s scarcely had its doors open since March. I assume baptisms are done in people’s homes, and weddings are simply on hold.

I can’t pretend I’m personally upset at this, and the lack of rockets and bells before dawn on a Sunday morning isn’t unwelcome. I’ve always preferred more subdued forms of worship. But I’m wondering what the long-term effect will be.

Public Catholicism still has a firm grip on local people, even if evangelical groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons have made significant inroads here in recent decades. It’s so embedded in the lifestyle, and so significant as a means of generating a revenue stream through sales of flowers and cohetes, hiring of musicians for funerals and all the peripheral consumerism around the rituals of worship, that its absence is at least extremely odd, as well as financially painful for many people.

I doubt though, that closed churches will produce a decline in the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe or the many lesser saints with their parish churches. In the absence of workplace insurance for workmen, a wooden cross on a construction site is seen as a standard way of warding off harm, just as images of the Virgin are found on dashboards, in stores, or set into the walls of houses.

But this year, Santa Maria Magdalena, our local protectress, will have to be content with reduced festivities to honour her. Not that this has stopped the woman who leads the singing at the church from broadcasting her devotions from the speaker system atop the church tower this evening. She’s a nice lady, but “singing” is not what anyone could seriously call the noise she’s making.

I think I might almost prefer a few more cohetes instead.


Despatch from the Ypres Salient

July 22, 2019

Once a year, in the fourth week of July, this village of Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl erupts in a celebration of its matron saint, Maria Magdalena. It’s the time of year when I have more homicidal thoughts than any other. In fact, all the murderous fantasies I have come out during these few days.


People in traditional Toltec dress, bringing banners and smoking copal incense, parade around the village to the accompaniment of post-Toltec rockets.

It’s the rockets. Since I typed the above paragraph, with hardly a pause, four of them have gone off. They’re explosive, so their detonation several hundred feet up echoes off the cliffs and jars the ears of the most sanguine of people. Some, like the bombs dropped by Stuka dive-bombers in WW2, are equipped with whistles that shriek as they ascend to explode.

Last night, after well over a hundred, and maybe twice that, were let off during the day, I thought we’d reached nocturnal calm at 11:00, when I went to bed. Two salvoes just after midnight scotched that idea, and I needed another hour to settle back into sleep. Then, the first salvo of the day came this morning at 5:45. Victoria, one of the dogs I care for, spent most of the night cowering under my bed, while the others just seem stunned by it all.

My headline refers to a segment of the Western in Front in WWI that hardly shifted for three years, and which often underwent attacks and counter-attacks. Many men serving there came out haunted for life by the incessant bombardments. Yes, I know this is a series of explosions without physical injury, and it will be all over by Wednesday. But it grates on the nerves of many of us as well as frightening our pets.

I always try to switch off my murder fantasies by shifting them to a more practical dream. I know the rockets are stored in a building adjacent to the village church, and I’d love to take a 50-gallon drum of water there at 2.00 am, and soak all of them in it. It would upset the rocket launcher-in-chief no end, for I’m sure he loves the sense of power involved in sending the things up into the air over the village, knowing their boom will be heard far away. But if I was caught, the community would never forgive me, even if some other people must hate the noise. I therefore abstain for fear of discovery, but not because I feel it would be wrong.

The theory, I understand, is that firing rockets upward during religious ceremonies underlines the idea of pointing to Heaven above us. Why prayer, music and bells can’t do the job here as they do elsewhere in the world, I’ve no idea, but I do grasp that rockets are fun. When there’s a parade around the village, they’re let off every time the procession passes a shrine to the Virgin Mary that’s in someone’s front wall. There are a lot of such shrines, so there are a lot of rockets.

Fireworks are part of life in Mexico, as they are in many countries, but the affection is very pronounced here. I’ve always enjoyed them in a display, but not when they only produce loud bangs. Right now, sleep-deprived, and having spent time trying to reassure traumatised dogs, I’m simply hoping that by tomorrow, or at least the day after, the village runs out of ammunition. Last time I was here for the fiesta, somebody was firing off two a minute for a solid hour. That becomes unbearable.

I suppose I don’t really want to kill the launcher, or at least I do only when he’s just awakened me from sleep. But at times, I do hope he goes deaf. And that one day, the loud explosions are banned.

From the Ypres Salient, where all is not quiet on the Western Front, over and out.