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Honoring a Gypsy saint

Morgan Smith
Most of the young Gypsies at the festival are from France, but many come from throughout Europe and don't even speak French.
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Legend has it that Mary Salome, the mother of the apostles John and James, fled Israel after the crucifixion of Jesus. With her was Mary Jacobe, the aunt of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, as well as Sarah, their black Egyptian servant.

Their boat washed ashore at what is now the village of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer at the mouth of the Petit Rhone River in the Camargue Region of southern France. Gypsies or Romanies have made pilgrimages to this village since the 16th century to honor Saint Sarah. The festival always takes place on May 24 and 25.

On May 24, the statue of Sarah is carried up from the crypt of the church, through the streets of this small town and out into the water of the Mediterranean. Local horsemen or “gardiens” lead the way and form a protective semicircle in the water.

On May 25, the statue of two Marys in a small boat is carried from the church through the town and into the water.

The celebrations are accompanied by singing and dancing, beautiful white horses from the region, the striking young Gypsies and bullfights in which the bulls are neither killed nor harmed.

One of the key figures is Manitas de Plata (Little Hands of Silver), a brilliant Gypsy guitar player who has played to packed houses all over the world, including Carnegie Hall a dozen times. Manitas can’t be missed with his gold chains, open flowered shirt and sharply pressed suits.


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