MAYORGA, Spain (AP) — Dressed in his best attire, Jesús María de la Viuda rushed to join neighbors for the patron saint festival in the Spanish town of Mayorga, a 282-year-old annual tradition that older residents religiously keep alive and fear might die off when they do.
A two-part procession honoring Saint Toribio Alfonso de Mogrovejo y Robledo marks the night his relics were sent to his native Mayorga. He died in 1606 while serving as archbishop in Lima, Perú and received sainthood more than a century later.
Attendance remains strong at the festival, which locals call El Vítor, but there are widespread worries in the wind-swept rural town as families and young adults keep leaving Mayorga for cities with jobs and better services.
"Some don't even come back for Christmas, but all of them are back for the procession of El Vítor," De la Viuda, 43, said.
The procession is based on local lore saying that the night De Mogrovejo's relics were returned in 1737, town residents went outside with flaming torches to welcome the holy man's relics and to illuminate the way home.
De la Viuda, an energy consultant, talks nostalgically about how past processions were more joyous when he was a boy and the town's population was bigger.
But he still says that both the daytime procession, when the saint's image and relics are paraded through Mayorga, and the one held at night, when locals raise poles with burning leather wineskins as torches, have a magical effect on participants.
"It's like being in trance," he says.
De la Viuda is committed to passing on the tradition to the town's next generation. On Sunday night, he dressed his 10-year-old daughter Natalia in old clothes, gloves and a large hay hat.
Dripping tar from burning torches stains the clothing and hats of people in the processions. De la Viuda made sure only Natalia's eyes were exposed and told her to keep looking down as they walked so she wouldn't get burned.
At the Saint Toribio shrine, the father and daughter joined other penitents who were setting their wineskins alight.
"Let's burn," De la Viuda said, as the two disappeared into clouds of smoke.
AP writer Aritz Parra contributed from Madrid.