Every year, with little fanfare or advance notice, the Portuguese community in Gilroy celebrates the ‘Festa do Espírito Santo’, or Feast of the Holy Spirit, with a parade through downtown Gilroy, a mass at St Mary’s Catholic Church, and the traditional serving of “sopas” – beef and vegetable soup – at the Portuguese Hall. All who come to the hall are served.
This festival originated in the Azore Islands over 700 years ago, and it has been carried to Portuguese/Azorean communities around the world. In the Azores, the feast takes place on the 7th Sunday after Easter, or Pentecostal Sunday. This commemorates the Holy Spirit coming down to Earth, reaffirming that God is with mankind and giving the disciples the ability to speak in tongues. In California, the communities celebrate with each other, sending their Queens to march in each other’s parades, so the feasts are spread throughout the post-Easter period.
Traditionally, a young girl is selected to be the Queen of the feast. She is dressed in fine dress with a cape and a crown, carrying a scepter, and, in the older traditions, carrying a silver plaque that represents the Holy Spirit.
The tradition of having a Queen is rooted in the story of Saint Isabel, Queen of Portugal, married to King Diniz. The story is that she was a deeply religious woman who cared greatly for her people, frequently saving bread from her own plate to give to the poor. King Diniz did not like her mixing with the poor, and forbade her continuing the practice. But she continued, until one day, as she was going out with bread wrapped in her cloak, King Diniz confronted her and demanded to know what she was carrying. Afraid, she prayed for Divine help. When she opened her cloak, instead of bread, out fell roses.
During her reign, a terrible famine struck Portugal. People were starving, and there was no food to be had. The queen spent all of her money procuring food for the people, but still the famine continued. When she had nothing left but her crown, she went to mass and pledged to the Holy Spirit, “I will give my crown to the Church if you will send me a miracle, so my people will be relieved of their hunger.” As she left the church, she saw ships loaded with grain coming into the harbor.
The symbolism of the crown and the feeding of the people of the community comes down to us through 700 years of tradition.
This is a deeply religious holiday, as well as a time for celebration. All who wish to celebrate with respect and sincerity are welcomed into the celebration. Look for it every year, about 7 weeks after Easter.
To learn more about Portugal and the Portuguese in California, plan on attending the ‘Dia de Portugal’ celebration in Kelly park, on June 2, 2012.