My parents, along with thousands of other Azorean people, moved to the New England area in the 1960’s when the “gates” of this country were open to emigration from Portugal. With those thousands of people came churches. With the people and the churches came traditions steeped in history. As a little girl, I grew up knowing these traditions like most kids knew the Saturday morning cartoon line up. The tradition of the Holy Ghost feast, and everything that comes along with it, has been dotted throughout every summer of my life.
My earliest memories of the Holy Ghost feast at my church, Espirito Santo Church in Fall River, MA, was of walking in the procession on the Sunday of the big feast. My mother would make me a beautiful white satin gown adorned with golden roping. My feet were placed in white thread hand crocheted socks and stuffed into white paten leather shoes. We would always start the procession walking on a beautifully decorated road (a carpet of flowers, colored wood shavings and pine needles), that would inevitably turn my beautiful white shoes different colors. We would walk throughout the “Flint” area of the city passed family and friends, Portuguese shops, bakeries and jewelery stores. My mother and Vavó would always be looking on from the sidewalk somewhere along the route and my father would always march in the procession as he still does today, now toting my brother along with him.
The procession would lead to a mass at the church that was then followed by the opening of the feast for the day. There you could find food, lots and lots of food… My Dad would roast some Carne Espeto (shish-kabobed beef) over an open pit of fiery coals. We would eat the salty meat with bread and french fries and favas, grilled chicken and sardines and always, always top it off with the best malasadas in the entire city (Portuguese fried dough).
The feast always had music and games too… The music was a combination of traditional marching band music, traditional folk music and more modern Portuguese stage music later at night. The games were of the carnival variety with booths full of donated items from parishioners that were won by games of chance. My favorite was always these little white squares of paper that were rolled and bent and one out of every 25 or so would have a number printed on it with a corresponding prize.
The Holy Ghost feast is celebrated not only in my little childhood church in Fall River, MA, but in Portuguese Roman Catholic churches and Holy Ghost Clubs throughout the state, the region and anywhere you can find a large Portuguese community. If you look you will find Holy Ghost feasts in the Azorean Islands of course, but also in Hawaii, California, Martha’s Vineyard, Connecticut, throughout Canada and Bermuda. So, what does all this mean? Where did all these traditions come from? Well, it all started with Queen Isabella of Portugal in the 1200’s. She decided to humble the kingdom by finding the poorest man in the country and crown him king for the day. He would literally wear a crown and sit on the throne and a banquet would be given in his honor. Two hundred years later when the Azorean Islands were populated by the Portuguese, they carried this tradition with them turning the royal crown into a silver ballooned crown we now know as the Holy Ghost crown.
Today the greatest symbol of the Holy Ghost is that silver crown. For seven weeks leading up to the feast, known as Domingas, the crown is brought into someone’s home and that family will open their home to parishioners who gather each night of the week to say the rosary and pray for the poor and sick. At the end of these Domingas the feast of the Holy Ghost takes place… a three-day festival that begins on the Friday night just before the Seventh Dominga, the “Blessing of the Meat and Bread,” in which a portion of beef and bread — the “Pensao” — is blessed by a priest and distributed to each member present. Following the tradition of charity and feeding the poor, a bowl of soup or stew is served to everyone. On Saturday night, participants decorate religious statues and crowns in preparation for the Sunday Procession and Mass. Differing from the original man in the 1200’s, a woman is chosen to represent Queen Isabel, and she and her court join a procession. At the end of the Mass, the priest crowns the Holy Ghost Queen.
Here are pictures of the procession:
Here are some highlights from the feast itself: