Sao Bartolomeu Do Mar, Portugal – Children shrieked and wailed on Sunday as they were dunked in the sea in the latest edition of a 300-year-old ritual that some believe purges them of their fears.
More than 30 000 people, most from Portugal’s northern interior, packed Sao Bartolomeu do Mar’s cobblestone streets and beach – many just enjoying a picnic lunch with a rare spectacle to boot or giving their kids the chilly Atlantic dip in the belief that it’s healthy.
But hundreds of true believers also came out on the feast of St Bartholomew harbouring hopes that the patron saint of children and stutterers would in fact help their youngsters.
“She’s afraid of everything, always crying. If this doesn’t cure her, I don’t know what will,” said Lisa Maria Rodrigues Abreu, retrieving her tearful 4-year old daughter Alexandra from the sea. The “official dunkers” are locals who moonlight once a year cleansing souls.
The ritual began at daybreak with children through age 7 carrying black roosters – usually wrapped in a plastic bag – around the town church three times, kissing a statue of the saint and then heading to the beach. Those who come without a rooster can rent one from a noisy pen adjoining the blue-and-white church.
According to local tradition, this Catholic ritual came about after a young boy asked Saint Bartholomew to cure him of his stuttering. He brought a black rooster to the church in Sao Bartolomeu as an offering to the saint, and dipped into the cold Atlantic. When he emerged from his bath, his stutter had disappeared.
The ritual was first practiced here more than 300 years ago, and was believed to cure children of epilepsy, stuttering and fear – afflictions traditionally attributed to the devil.
St Bartholomew’s legendary credentials as the disciple who bound and banished the devil to the desert made him a fitting patron of such rites.
Down at the beach, a handful of official dunkers pried crying children from their parents, carried them into the sea and dipped them into the rolling waves three times.
“I don’t think the kids like me very much, but it has to be done,” said Antonio Capitao, inspecting the holes that children had ripped into his yellow oil skin, then snatching a small boy trying to shirk his bath. The 65-year old, who once made a living collecting and selling seaweed, has been dunking children for longer than he can remember.
The last time anyone checked, which was 15 years ago, three in four people believed in the healing powers of the procedure, said tourism chief Miguel Gomes in neighbouring Esposende.
Believers were thinner on the ground on Sunday. Salesmen hawked fiesta paraphernalia such as glowing religious statues, roast chicken and wall hangings printed with images of Eminem and Marilyn Manson.
Religious or not, the crowds cheered the festival’s organisers in this depressed region of Portugal, mindful of the international attention and money lured by events in neighbouring Spain such as bull runs and a massive food fight with ripe, red tomatoes.
But die-hard believers were not happy with the changes they say they have been seeing over recent years.
“Every year there are fewer religious people. Many don’t even go to Mass,” said 56-year old Maria Fernandes Perreira, standing outside the church and clutching a rosary. “But this is no laughing matter. You have to have real faith if you want to defeat the devil.”