The Celebration of Saint Sarah
By Christie Seeley
Many years ago, when my children were relatively young, my husband and I concocted the brilliant idea of spending three months in France with our entire family (the youngest turned one on the trip). We did not intend it to be a grand tour but more of an international living experience. We purchased a Volkswagen Vanagon that he picked up in Brussels, and after spending an eye-opening week in Paris, we headed to Provence, where we planned to spend much of our time. We spotted an offer in the International Herald Tribune. We contacted a fascinating man who agreed to rent us his rustic, quite romantic stone shepherds hut outside the historical ruins of Les Baux-de-Provence amid rocky hills of bauxite scattered with herbs and olive trees. The cottage had no electricity, but he equipped it with hundreds of candles in ornate candelabras surrounding a giant fireplace. This quaint location invited us to explore surrounding towns like Maussane-les-Alpilles and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and picturesque Arles for market days that offered incredible delights.
One day in May, the 24th, to be exact, we decided to drive south to the Camargue area, hopefully, to see the wild horses for which it is famous. As we drew close to the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer about which we knew little, we passed dozens of caravans heading in both directions. We were puzzled until we arrived in the village to find this was the day of festivities celebrating Saint Sarah, patron saint of the Romani people. The streets were filled with people dancing, playing music and frolicking in a celebratory fashion. Upon entering the low ceilinged chapel below the church's nave, we were overwhelmed by the heat of thousands of candles lit in reverence for Saint Sarah herself's black figure. The pilgrimage brings thousands of devotees to the town every year, where they re-enact Sarah's legendary arrival by sea to the city. By some accounts, she is the daughter of Jesus Christ and Mary of Magdalene. However, according to Romani scholar Ronald Lee who compares the ceremonies in the worship of Kali in northern India with those performed in France at the shrine of Sainte Sara (called Sara e Kali in Romani). “...we become aware” he says “that the worship of Kali/Durga/Sara has been transferred to a Christian figure... in France, to a non-existent "sainte" called Sara, who is actually part of the Kali/Durga/Sara worship among certain groups in India."
As my investigation into Lee's work also informed me, the Romani people came from northern India into France, Spain and other European destinations starting in the 14th century if not earlier.
Our little party was thrilled by this demonstration, and, quite frankly, though we drove through the Camargue, we never spotted the famous horses. No one was disappointed after all we had experienced that day.
An open mind and adventurous spirit lead to all kinds of beautiful encounters. I will never forget that colorful introduction to Romani culture and music, which continue to fascinate me today through the flamenco and jazz manouche I hear performed here in Puerto Vallarta and in my European travels.