Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne


The Romarias, or annual pilgrimages, are a great institution in Portugal. They are looked on partly as being good for the soul, and partly as pleasurable outings. Sometimes the pilgrimage is to a shrine on some lonely hill-top, sometimes to a spot marked by an array of stone crosses, where some local saint is reputed to have performed a miracle. These pilgrimages keep up interest in religious observances, but unluckily there is often much superstition connected with them.

There are two places which, above all others, attract vast crowds of the devout, as many as 30,000 to 35,000 people being often present. One is "Bom Jesus do monte" (Good Jesus of the mountain), near Braga; and the other "Bom Jesus dos boucas" (Good Jesus of the barren sands), at Mathosinhos, a village on the sea-coast not far from Oporto. Here, in an unpretentious church, is enshrined a crucifix reputed to possess the most wonderful miracle-working powers.

The legend runs that long, long ago, so far back that date and year have been forgotten, this figure of our Lord was washed ashore and placed by the priest in the village church. It had been much buffeted by the waves, and had lost one arm, but some little time after, the missing limb was discovered in the following miraculous way. A poor old woman was trudging along the beach one day, picking up driftwood wherewith to light her fire. She saw a piece which she thought was the very thing required, and returned home with it, only to find that do what she would, she could not get it to burn. She put it out in the sun to dry, but all to no purpose; so at length she decided to cut it up into little splinters, to see if in that way it would more readily catch fire. No sooner was her chopper lifted ready to strike than the wood jumped to one side! The faster the blows rained down the more nimble did it become, till at last, in alarm, the old dame sought a priest, to whom she related her strange story. He examined the piece of wood, and was inspired to recognize the missing arm, which was soon restored to its proper position.

The pious folk for miles around still firmly believe that this sacred image, coming to them thus wonderfully from the sea, must have power to help the toilers of the deep, and must be the very special protector of seamen and fishermen. When the storms are wildest, and their boats are in danger of being wrecked, it is to our Lord of Mathosinhos that the sailors cry in their distress. They ascribe their preservation to His miraculous powers, and the church is full of the quaintest votive offerings given in humble gratitude for answered prayers. Extraordinary wax models of legs and arms hang near the shrine, and also numberless pictures, crudely painted by the mariners themselves. These depict ships in every conceivable peril, and generally the figure in the church is prominently portrayed, stilling the raging waves, or rescuing the drowning men. Terrible daubs they are, but they hang there, a pathetic witness to the faith which, in the hour of danger, could seek for help where alone help was to be found. They are presented with a gift of money at the great yearly pilgrimage at Whitsuntide.

A large fair is held at the same time, where whole stalls are devoted to the sale of whistles. They are made of red, yellow, and brown pottery, and are the very oddest-looking things, in the shape of grotesque birds, beasts, and figures. Everyone buys one, and everyone whistles. It is the right thing to do at Whitsuntide in Mathosinhos.

The pilgrimage to "Bom Jesus do monte" also takes place at Whitsuntide, and lasts for three days. The church stands on a high hill. Leading up to it are broad flights of steps, zigzagging from terrace to terrace, and flanked by walls and overhanging trees. The terraces are ornamented with statues, obelisks, and fountains carved in granite, and all the way up, at regular intervals, are small shrines or chapels, in which stand groups of life-sized figures representing different scenes in the Passion of our Lord. Up these steps toil the pilgrims in their thousands, men and women, young and old, reverently worshipping at each shrine before passing on. Some few in their devotion, weighed down by their burden of sin and sorrow, perform the entire ascent on their knees. Masses are chanted and sermons preached in the church; solemn processions pass to and fro, with banners and crucifix borne aloft. All knees are bent, all heads are bowed, as priests in gorgeous vestments, bearing the Host, move slowly along.

Children dressed like fairies take a great part in the processions, with spangled wings, or the soft feathered pinions of a bird fixed to their shoulders. I have seen weary little pilgrims, so small and so tired that the men who marched beside them picked them up tenderly and carried them along, fast asleep, in their arms.

There have to be great preparations made for so large a gathering. For days beforehand the creaking of ox-waggons may be heard, wending their way slowly up the hill, with their loads of food and casks of wine. Decorations are put up, poles, and flags, and strings of Chinese lanterns. The people begin to arrive on the Saturday. Some go to one or other of the three hotels, which on these occasions are packed to overflowing; but they mostly camp out in the woods in tents, or rough huts made of branches. They also build fireplaces with stones and clay, and ovens in which to bake their bread.

Here and there an idle youth brings out his guitar, or someone bursts gaily into song. It is like a scene in a theatre, only that it is all real—a huge, happy picnic party, come together for prayer and praise, and after that to enjoy themselves as much as they possibly can.

All are dressed in their very best. The men wear tight trousers, white shirts, sashes round the waist, broad-brimmed felt hats, and short coats much tagged and braided. The women look very gay with blue, orange, or red silk kerchiefs crossed over the breast, snowy-white blouses, tight-fitting bodices, black or coloured, and thickly-pleated skirts of every conceivable hue, cut short at the ankles. They wear bright embroidered aprons, and a sort of pocket hanging round the waist, very elaborately ornamented with beads or sequins. Embroidered muslin handkerchiefs cover their heads, surmounted by round black hats edged with floss silk made to curl and look like ostrich feathers. Added to all this, they are decked out with a great deal of gold jewellery—necklaces, heavy earrings, and huge heart-shaped lockets of strange, intricate design.

A rich farmer's wife will sometimes have her whole bodice covered with gold ornaments, and should she happen to be the proud owner of three pairs of earrings, will wear them all, to the great envy of her neighbours.

The women also delight in possessing a great many petticoats. The more they have the more important do they consider themselves, for it shows how wealthy they must be, and on such an occasion as a pilgrimage they don them all. Sixteen or eighteen on one woman! Just think of it in warm weather! On festive occasions a rich peasant woman will be so be-petticoated that she can scarcely walk, and will have to move slowly along in a rolling, ungainly manner; but she will be a proud woman, and will gladly endure the discomfort for the sake of the importance and dignity conferred upon her by her many skirts.