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A giant wave of roulottes hits the beach town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue every spring, when an estimated ten thousand gypsies from all over Europe gather there to celebrate their patron saint Black Sarah on May 24 and 25. Many of these Gens du Voyage (the politically correct term that replaced gitans ortsiganes) arrive a week in advance so that babies born during the past year may be baptized by “their” local chaplain and newly-formed couples may be married. But first and foremost, the gypsies are there to celebrate their black madonna, Sarah.
According to legend, Marie-Salomé and Marie-Jacobé, who were close to Jesus, fled the persecutions in their native Judea in a little boat, accompanied by their servant, Sarah, and Lazarus, Martha, Mary Magdalen, and Maximin. Divine winds blew their boat ashore at what is today Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. While the others departed in various directions, the two Maries and Sarah settled down and began to evangelize the locals, as well as some roaming gypsies.
Those gypsies felt a special affinity for Sarah, who was born in Egypt and had dark skin (at the time, the dark-skinned gypsies were called “Egyptians,” from which the word gypsies was derived), and in the 15th century they proclaimed Sarah their patron saint.
The festivities begin on May 24, when the “Chasse”–a large silver-plated trunk containing the relics of saint Marie-Jacobé and saint Marie Salomé–is slowly lowered from its niche high above the altar by means of cords and pulleys, while the feverish crowd below chants and awaits the relics with lighted candles. After nearly 30 minutes, the Chasse finally touches down and the gypsies throng forward to touch it with their candles, asking blessings and commending their children to the sainted Maries.Now it is Sarah’s turn. Her statue is brought up from the crypt of the church and first given a new dress. She gets a new dress every year that is put over her previous dresses, resulting in her curiously bulky appearance and disproportionately tiny head. Carried by chanting gypsies and preceded by a group of Gardians (the local cowboys on their white Camargue horses), Sarah makes her way through town and to the beach. There, the statue-bearers, surrounded by the Gardians on horseback, walk their black madonna a few steps into the water to symbolize Sarah’s arrival by sea.
This ritual is repeated the next morning when the two Maries are carried to the sea after a high mass said by the archbishop of Aix-en-Provence. They are represented by two rather primitive-looking statues of one blond and one black-haired Marie, seated in a little boat that is carried through town on a dozen strong shoulders, accompanied by beautiful Arlesiènnes in traditional dress and the ever-present Gardians holding high their long lances. When they arrive at the water’s edge, the Gardians again walk their horses into the sea and flank the gypsies, who wade waist-high into the waves carrying the holy Maries in their boat. The archbishop accompanies them in a fisherman’s boat and blesses the sea, the town, the pilgrims and the gypsies. Loud chants of Ave, Ave, Ave Mariaaaa! welcome everyone back on shore and envelop the joyous procession on its way back to church, where the holy Maries in their boat are reunited with black Sarah.
The last ritual of this pilgrimage takes place the same afternoon when the archbishop conducts a religious ceremony to celebrate the hoisting of the Chasse of relics back to the safety of its high lair above the altar. It is a moving moment, as the gypsies take this last chance to touch their candles to the silver Chasse and hold their children up to kiss it, all the while shouting prayers and asking blessings and protection. Then they accompany Sarah back to the crypt in an emotional farewell for another year. I knew a moment of panic when I followed the pilgrims into the crowded crypt and found myself pressed against a wall and surrounded by burning candles that in the excessive heat had drooped into dripping fire hazards. Sarah was watching, however, and kept us safe.
As a tourist one can’t help but feel like a bit of an intruder in this private gypsy moment, yet these pilgrims seem to take us in stride and once the ceremonies are over and they return to their wagons, they quickly revert to stereotype by demanding money for picture taking or offering to read your palm. They are all there: the beautiful Esmeraldas with large loopy earrings, the standard-feature fortune tellers, the gruff menfolk and the begging children–the very picture of gypsydom.
The nasty thought did cross my mind that this gypsy pilgrimage, which draws many tourists, might be an irresistible commercial opportunity. But then I remembered the fervor I had witnessed, the upturned tearstained faces following the relics until they were out of sight, and the fact that these people had traveled thousands of miles to gather here once a year, as their forefathers had done, to pay homage to their venerated Sarah. This has to be real and I felt privileged to witness it.
Anne-Marie Simons has had a long career as a sometime secretary, translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races), realtor, and Director of Corporate Communications, which included writing an international newsletter. Now happily retired, Anne-Marie and her Argentine husband Oscar live in the South of France where she writes and Oscar cooks.
TAKING ROOT IN PROVENCE by Anne-Marie Simons is available on Amazon.com.
If you’re coming to France (or for that matter anywhere) you can reserve your hotel here. To rent a car, Bonjour Paris recommends Auto Europe.