St George and the Moors and Christians of Alcoy, Alicante
Moors and Christians fiestas are to be found throughout the year all over Spain, since at one time or the other the Arab menace was present on a national scale. But they differ according to the regions and their diverse temperaments and St George plays an important role in a number of these fiestas.
St George was the Crusaders’ saint and, although very little is known about him except that he appears to have been born in Cappadocia, the legend of his rescue of a princess from a dragon and his subsequent visionary appearance in the thick of the fray to various Christian commanders, including Richard the Lionheart during his storming of Jerusalem, caused him to displace several indigenous saints when the triumphant Crusaders returned to their native lands (for example, he displaced the well-authenticated English saint, Edward the Confessor).
While the Crusaders saw St George mounted on his white steed, other Christian commanders who fought against the Moors in Spain saw St James taking part in the battle, also mounted on a white charger, and in the long run it was he who displaced St George in Spain as the saint who could be relied upon to slay the Moors; St, James, or Santiago, ultimately became the patron saint of Spain.
To students of comparative folklore, it is the white charger that is the more important element as the symbol of victory granted by a supernatural agency. The white horse, in the northern cults which spread from distant Siberia to Europe, is taken to be a messenger from the world of spirits, including the dead. The shamans of Siberia used horses in their trance-inducing rituals and in Icelandic sagas horse-meat was the special meat used in sacrifices. For long periods in prehistory, and prehistory has still got a firm grip of our imagination, the horse had a special status and was the object of cult worship. In the Basque country, it was believed that the spirit of the corn assumed the form of a horse and the wild horses of Galicia were said to have been conceived by the wind, that is, the breath of a spirit.
The dragon of St George is relegated to a minor role in Spain, where the horse predominates. Its role was taken over by the contemporary enemy, the Moor or the Turk; the dragon, separated from the saint, was switched to the feast of Corpus Christi to represent vanquished heresy.
In the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fiestas of Moors and Christians were danced. Lope de Vega mentions having seen them in Andalucia; there was a Moors and Christians dance in Valencia in the fifteenth century and in Navarra and the Basque countries in the sixteenth. It was doubtless this type of celebration that crossed the sea to England, perhaps in the train of Catherine of Aragon, to become transformed into the Morris dances, and the Moors and Turks of mummers’ plays.
One of the most sumptuous and colourful of Moors and Christians fiestas in Spain is undoubtedly the fiesta of Alcoy in the province of Alicante.
Alcoy has a documented historic reason for choosing to make their annual Moors and Christians fiesta coincide with the feast day of St George. Alcoy stood on the border of the Muslim-held territories of Spain. There were frequent skirmishes between the two factions until, on 23rd April 1276, the Arab troops of Al-Azraq attempted to storm the town. According to legend, St George appeared during the battle and, thanks to his intervention, the Christian army won the day, forcing the Muslims to retreat and never to return. In recognition of his timely intercession, the townsfolk of Alcoy made him their patron saint and promised to hold a festival in his honour on 23rd April every year.
Alcoy is a town of approx. 61,000 residents thirty miles to the north of Alicante and they celebrate their Christian and Moors festival over 3 days, culminating on St George’s Day, i.e. 23rd April.
On the first day, there is a spectacular procession of Moors and Christians: the different groups that make up each army march majestically through the streets of Alcoy resplendently attired in their elaborate costumes. Around 5,000 people take part in this highly popular event. On the second day, numerous different events are held in honour of San Jorge. On the final day, a huge battle is fought in Plaza de España square in a specially-built castle which represents the city. The Muslim troops approach the castle in an attempt to persuade the Christians to surrender, but the offer is rejected and the ensuing battle ends with the Moors taking over the stronghold. In the afternoon, the Christian army returns and succeeds in retaking the castle. Then, after unsuccessfully negotiating a surrender, the final battle begins in which the Moors are ultimately defeated. In the evening, St George, the patron saint of Alcoy, appears on horseback, shooting arrows from the top of the castle which marks the end of the three days of festivities.
Aficionados of fiestas, needless to say, will want to savour all of the events, the odd characters, the witty comments, even the occasional hitches in the organization which make every re-enactment of a fiesta different from its predecessors because, and this is one of the great attractions of Spanish fiestas as a whole, the celebrations are seldom inflexible; there are so many trimmings that inevitably one year some will get left out while the next year there may be a few additions.
It is worth taking the scenic route to Alcoy from Alicante on the CV-800 which passes through a rich agricultural and industrial region and then winds through the valley of Torremanzanas with steep ravines above and neat little huertas below. On the way is the attractive town of Jijona built in the side of a rock, famous for its excellent turron, the oriental-Spanish version of nougat. After Jijona the road winds through the Sierra Carrasquita and climbs to a pass at 3,418 feet. Then it descends into the valley of the Molinell. Alcoy, eight miles farther on is situated at the foot of the Sierra Montcabrer, is practical and industrial with industry related to textile, paper, food and metal. Furthermore, it has many factories which manufacture matches. Nothing in its external appearance suggests the ardour with which its inhabitants keep up a thirteenth-century tradition.
The Alcoyanos even carry the torch wherever they emigrate. When they go to another Spanish province they take with them that peculiar nostalgia for the patria chica which the brothers Quintero exploited in their play The Lady from Alfaqueque. The Alcoyanos living in Madrid founded an Association of St George in 1919 and another one in Valencia in 1921 while some Alcoyano colonies, as at Sabadell, have even instituted a symbolic representation of the annual home fiesta.
Alcoy’s annual Christian and Moors fiesta is organised by the Association of St George (Asociación de San Jorge)