Date: 19 January
Although the ubiquitous Moors are once again alleged to be at the origin of this fiesta, it bears the unmistakable signs of a much older rite. One is told that it commemorates a bloody battle waged in 1234 which liberated the region from the Moors at a great cost of life. The victors upon their return home were acclaimed by the populace and given a ‘lunch’ of bread and cheese, the products of their village. Ever since Zarza has celebrated Bread and Cheese Day on 19 January, but the participants are now children who, armed with clubs form a circle in the square in front of the church. The local authorities, teachers, and two older children who ‘direct’ the performance, stand in the centre of the circle. One of the older children recites the Pater Noster followed by all the people taking part in the rite in honour of their ancestors who lost their lives in the historic battle.
Then the second of the older boys raises a wooden cross and recites the following prayer: ‘By this holy and adorable cross, brilliant light which illumines all nations and which was the banner of the elders of this village when they fought against the Moors and gained a great victory which is commemorated here today. As a result of the Pater Noster which they addressed to God, the enemy retreated and, to prepare themselves, they cried: “The wicked enemy is coming over the sierra, let us go and kill him!’”
At this point the younger children beat their clubs against the ground as if they were attacking an imaginary enemy. The Pater is recited three times and also the war cry: ‘The wicked enemy is coming over the sierra. Let us go and kill him!’, after which the populace goes into the church through one door and comes out of another where the local authorities distribute bread and cheese to all and sundry. Young and old then pelt each other with tabuas, a name given to the dried, round hairy balls that grow on certain reeds.
The reference to the cross as the ‘sun’ (the light which illumines the world), the beating of the soil by the younger generation, the consumption of bread and reference to ancestors, the ball game or battle, are characteristic components of end-of-the-year conjurations to which the Moors and the Pater Noster were added in the course of time.
A variation of this rite, which is a form of general communion to ensure abundance in the New Year, is performed in the villages of Instincion and Huecija in the province of Almeria. Here a giant rosca or garland-shaped bun is made by the womenfolk who each contributes her quota of flour and eggs, and placed at the feet of the patron image (Saint Sebastian on 20 January in Huecija, Our Lady of the Candelaria on 2 February at Instincion) where it is blessed, taken in procession and afterwards distributed among the villagers, who keep the pieces as ‘lucky talismans’ or give them to their domestic animals to eat, to keep them free from disease in the forthcoming year.
Video of cheese throwing at Zarza de Montanchez