The religious part of the Christian festival begins on 1 November with the usual visit to the municipal cemetery, where relatives and friends come to leave flowers or candles to their loved ones or share memories or experiences. In the afternoon, a mass in the cemetery takes place starting with the vespers of the day of the Deceased that ends with the first ‘toques a muerto’ (ring the bell to dead) until the night. The following day is the typical day of going to the church at the masses of remembrance of the deceased.
The Christian religious festival began in the Middle Ages as an attempt to channel the pagan celebration towards the memory of All Saints and the deceased, although the faithful developed other unorthodox customs in the form of superstitions such as placing cloths and luxurious fabrics on the tombs or colourful candles, dances of the purgatory or funerary feasts, which were persecuted by the Council of Trent.
During the Baroque, the meditation on death would reach a great importance so the festival reached a great development. In the eighteenth century the cemeteries began to be moved to the outskirts of the urban areas, although the displacements did no finish until the nineteenth century, so the location of the celebration changed to two different scenarios: cemeteries and churches. In the cemeteries, the compulsory visit to the deceased relatives and in the churches, the masses in memory of their souls.
The primitive cemetery of Sant Joan was always located next to the church but its location was changing around it. In the nineteenth century it moved to its current location in La Coix, at the base of Mount Calvari, without knowing the exact date of this event, although we know that in 1885 important works were carried out in the cemetery. The last reform took place at the beginning of this century, including in the perimeter one of the old wells that were in the slopes of the Calvary. You can still see interesting pantheons from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Regarding the legends associated with deceased and souls, there was or is a belief that the souls of the dead return to their homes these days, so it is important that everything is in perfect condition, especially the beds.
Currently, the funerary ritual is very simplified, but until not very long ago it was very traditional with very ancient roots. Depending on the economic position of the deceased, the celebration would vary. This was made clear specially in the funeral procession, presided over by an artistic carriage drawn by plumed and caparisoned horses decorated with velvets with fringes and golden sticks and in which the coffin was deposited. There was a popular saying that said ‘quant més rics, més animals’ (when richer, more animals), which summed up in a satirical tone the social differentiation of the deceased according to the number of horses that pulled the funerary carriage. This procession was opened by the cross followed by the clergy and the freemen, making three stops along the way. There could also be footmen with swords and liveries on their shoulders, escorting the carriage.
However, in most cases the burials were of humble people and therefore very simple. When someone died, the vigil was prepared in a room of the house with the ‘body present’ while the bells began to announce the death to the town. The deceased was veiled night and day in the house attended by relatives, friends and curious, until the moment of his transfer to the church for the funeral when the priests who had to initiate the prayer arrived. From there the men marched towards the church carrying the coffin, while the women stayed in the house beginning the prayers that could last several days. After the funeral ceremony, the procession was organized again from the church to the estate La Concepcion, where the procession ended and the attendants said goodbye to the relatives of the deceased giving them their condolences. From there, those who wished to do so continued to the cemetery where the deceased was buried.
The liturgy of the ‘mortitxolets’, ‘albaets’ or deceased children was curious. It was a sad celebration and yet, a festive ritual as it tried to symbolize the death of the little ones in purity and innocence and their direct passage to heaven, a supposed reason for joy. In the nineteenth century especially, and part of the twentieth, such celebrations were generalized, including dances and banquets around the veil and burial of the children, and the funeral in the church followed a liturgy of joy in thanksgiving. When the funeral procession arrived at the town exit on the way to the cemetery, the typical formula in Sant Joan d’Alacant to give the condolence was: ‘Congratulations’, as a congratulation for the ascent of the soul of the child or girl to heaven, although it may sound naughty and sarcastic.
Did you know?
In Sant Joan d’Alacant coinciding with the Feast of All Saints and faithful departed, the ‘Quixalet’ was celebrated until the 60’s. It was a lunch for the altar boys and bell ringers to help them recover the strength after remaining for hours in the bell tower tolling the numerous strokes of deceased and souls during those days. As a sample, on November 1, the ringing ran from five in the afternoon until the last hours of the day, and on day 2, dedicated to the Souls, from four in the morning when the masses began. The food or the money with which the food of this agape was acquired came from the donation of the neighbours. To this end, a few days before the Quixalet, the altar boys went all over the streets and farms of the town clothed in cassocks carrying large baskets and a bell that they stroke when they arrived to warn the inhabitants of the house that they were going to collect for The ‘Quixalet’. The final result was a splendid and succulent dinner in the ‘cuarto vell’ (old room) of the church on day 1, followed by a similar lunch the following day. These feasts never lacked chops, sausages and fried tomato washed down with a good wine, followed by desserts with fruits and quinces. In theory, the neighbours donations were a kind of payment to the bell ringers and assistants for their services in ringing the bells to remember the deceased and remind everyone of the obligation to pray and go to mass those days.
In the church the liturgy of the deceased was celebrated with the Novena de Almas. On the main altar of the parish a four-story burial mound was placed with black fabrics in which allusive embroidery to death appeared with skulls and skeletons with scythes, hourglasses or mortuary phrases. That macabre huge great thing, that was more than 7 meters high, was also lit with torches, since the temple remained in shadow, while funeral songs were sang and the bells rang the strokes of the dead. There was a large white cross at the top of the burial mound. It was a perfect resource to frighten anybody, to which it is necessary to add the mischiefs of the pranksters, especially children, who hid under the fabrics and made after death sounds or moved the skeletons. At present, these rituals have disappeared from the celebration.