According to the last national census of 2002, 69.96% of Chileans declare to be Catholic. Since the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th. century, the Catholic religion has been the main western creed in Chile. But with the passage of time and the influence of the indigenous cultures, a multitude of rites have developed, many of which survive today in the form of religious traditions.
From the hot desert of the north to the island of Chiloé in the south, every year different religious celebrations bring together thousands of the faithful and visitors, offering the visitors a unique experience to become acquainted with the customs of the country and the spiritual side of the Chilean people.
Following are some of the most important celebrations:
This is the most popular religious festival of the north of the country, which in 2008 brought together over 220,000 people. Although it currently takes place every 16th. July to commemorate Our Lady of Mount Carmel, considered the patron saint of Chile, the celebration is Andean in origin and is strongly associated with the cult to the Pachamama, Mother Earth to the Aymara and Quechua
cultures. This is a demonstration of the “mestizaje” or mix of cultures between the autochthonous American and European peoples.
The celebrations are concentrated in the locality of La Tirana, 56 miles away from the city of Iquique, between July 12 and 18, when a series of rites, singing and dancing in Altiplano outfits of multiple colors and shapes take place. The most famous of these dances is the “Diablada” (Devil’s Dance), where dancers with large colorful masks of demons confront the forces of good led by the Archangel Michael. All accompanied by large bands of brass instruments and drums.
Visitors from all over Chile and even from Peru and Bolivia attend the celebration. It is possible to get to La Tirana overland from Iquique or Arica to the town of Pozo Almonte, 7 miles away from La Tirana, from where regular and convenient public transport service is provided during those days.
Feast of Quasimodo
This celebration is an expression of the popular religiousness of the Chilean countryside. It takes place the first Sunday after Easter (which for Catholics varies from year to year between 22 March and 25 April) in localities of the central zone close to Santiago, such as Lo Abarca, Cuncumén, Lo Barnechea, Llay Llay, Colina, Peñalolén, Casablanca, Talagante, Conchalí, Isla de Maipo and Maipú.
A “corrida” or run is organized in each locality, where the “cuasimodistas” (farmers and rural laborers dressed specially for the occasion) on horseback escort a carriage that carries the priest. In the more urban areas in Santiago (such as Maipú and Peñalolén) horses have given way to bicycles, transforming the event into an animated popular cycling event.
The celebration goes back to colonial times, when priests visited the towns to take communion to the sick and elderly who were unable to fulfill their religious obligations. To keep the priests from being attacked by bandits during their journey, the Catholic “huasos” (farmers) accompanied him, wearing distinctive white cloth headgear.
Our Lady of Lo Vásquez
This is the most heavily attended religious festival in the country: it brought together more than a million people in 2009. It takes place on 8 December to celebrate the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Hundreds of thousands of Chilean Catholics travel to sanctuaries devoted to the Virgin Mary all over the country, and most especially to the Lo Vásquez temple located in the municipality of Casablanca, on the route between Santiago and Valparaíso. The ceremony is a demonstration of the fervor of Chilean Catholics for the Virgin Mary.
Both from the capital and the central coast, thousands of pilgrims set off for the sanctuary, on foot, bicycle and some even on their knees, to ask for or repay a “manda” or favor granted by the Virgin. So many pilgrims attend the festival that part of the route is closed off to motor traffic to enable the faithful to arrive safely at their destination. Stalls with food and different merchandise also offer their wares around the temple.
Located 42 miles east of Concepción, Yumbel is a town of 20,000 inhabitants that receives over 300,000 visitors every summer. The reason? On 20 January a feast is celebrated to venerate Saint Sebastian, one of the first Christian martyrs according to Catholic tradition. The local cult began in 1663, when Spaniards carried a cedar wood image of the saint into the town, which today stands on the altar of the Yumbel Catholic Temple.
The local inhabitants began to attribute miracles to the saint, such as the quenching of a fire in 1747, making Yumbel’s reputation grow as a sanctuary city. A series of commercial activities and places selling local cuisine are developed around the religious festivity, where you can find anything from clothes to religious articles such as candles, religious prints and figures.
At the San Sebastián festival it is possible to see the rural traditions of the center-south of Chile related to religious fervor, because many pilgrims attend the festival dressed in the typical outfits of the Chilean countryside. Although the official celebration is on 20 January, many agricultural laborers must be at work at that time and so it is also celebrated on the “20 Chico” (little 20th.) on 20 March.
This post is also available in Spanish