'Festival of the Near Death Experience'
 
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'Festival of the Near Death Experience'
Las Nieves, Pontevedra
July  29th
Religious pilgrimages have been a part of Spanish life since the time of the Crusades, but none are as outrageous as the one that takes place today in the small northwestern town of Las Nieves. The action that unfolds today can hardly be believed. "Near death" and real life merge together in a surreal stew of Catholicism and Paganism in honor of Saint Marta de Ribarteme, the patron of resurrection.
In short, the pilgrimage is specifically for those who have had a near-death experience in the past year. These lucky folk pay their respects to Santa Marta by carrying (or riding in!) a coffin into the church to hear mass.
Thousands of people pour into this tiny town, and by 10am the streets are clogged with believers and gawkers. The coffins begin to arrive, borne by solemnly-dressed relatives carrying their lucky loved ones who have recently escaped death, and lugged by old men without families, who must carry their own coffins towards the small granite church of Santa Marta de Ribarteme. Mass begins around noon and is broadcast with loudspeakers outside of the sanctuary so the crowd outside can hear (the mass is then re-broadcast throughout the day in case you arrive late).

When the mass is complete, the church bells ring and a procession of coffins starts up the hill toward the nearby cemetery and then back to circle several times around the church. The people begin to chant "Virgin Santa Marta, star of the North, we bring you those who saw death," as a large statue of the saint is removed from the church and carried along with the coffins. The image of Santa Marta has her right hand raised to hold a cascade of money "offerings" to help protect those who have recently escaped entering the "dark mansion called death."

While the sentiment of the pilgrimage is overwhelmingly sober, the scene today is anything but. Street merchants are everywhere selling colorful statues of the Virgin and Jesus, illuminated scenes of the Last Supper, silver crosses and small plastic angels. There are plenty of Gitanos (Gypsies) there to entertain, along with brass bands playing enthusiastic "paso dobles" in the town square. Typical of Spanish fiestas, the locals are lighting fireworks everywhere. You won't go hungry, because there'll be plenty of street food - the specialty of the day is pungent octopus cooked in copper cauldrons.

Las Nieves is in the isolated northwest part of Spain, called Galicia, where mysterious pagan rites have been part of the culture since anyone can remember. Witches, "evil spirits" and exorcisms are not uncommon here, and it is said that Galicians have always added a bit of "black pepper" to their spiritual beliefs. The Catholic church has never been able to fully integrate their teachings and dogma here, and the Santa Marta de Ribarteme Pilgrimage is an attempt to integrate the Church's beliefs with the more primitive beliefs of the local inhabitants.
 
 

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