Once again, yesterday, the plaza filled with Cuzqueños and some tourists as the saints, one by one, slowly began to take their exit from seven days within the cathedral. The images seemed to dip in greeting and goodbye to the people gathered for another year. Now the feasting moves from the plaza to Cuzco’s neighborhoods.
The sun shone brightly, though not very warmly. This year’s Corpus Christi falls very close to the solstice, the day when the sun spends the least time in Cuzco and is at its weakest. As a result, this is a ritual time of year, going back into ancient times when people would gather to help give the sun strength and support on these weak days.
They say the saints have enjoyed their week together in the Cathedral. They supposedly have told each other all the news of their neighborhoods as well as engaged in the interpersonal scandals and struggles of any group of people. Now they are ready to return to those neighborhoods, fortified by their society.
In the Cathedral, people gathered around them and prayed. Sometimes the prayers took the form of political complaints, witness, and gossip. Sometimes they were a recitation of a standard prayer or a pleading to meet family and personal need.
Although not related to Christian theology, still the timing of this moment for the saints to begin their return to their home Churches is very significant. It is as if the Holy Figures from Cuzco’s neighborhoods had gathered together in the Cathedral, where the Unu Punku–the gate of water and place of origin still stands, in order to soak up the strength of holy beginnings and take that force back with them to each of Cuzco’s historical neighborhoods.
Yesterday was the Octave of the feast of Corpus Christi, a day that falls one week after the feast itself and is important in Cuzco’s religious celebrations. Though not universally celebrated in the Christian world, it is key to Cuzco’s celebrations, extending them for a far longer period than a single day and making them much more significant in the social and economic life of the city and region’s peoples.
The figures of the saints and virgins themselves are intriguing, because of the richness of clothing and offerings placed on them in which local ideas blend with formal Catholic iconography.
Of interest, two saints carried offerings of food. Saint Sebastian had a strand of big potatoes strung across his litter just below his feet and Santa Barbara, who is associated with lightning and hence rain, also had offerings of potatoes and other tubers at her feet.
Besides this blending of food production with the Holy Figures that play such a strong role in Cuzco’s life, ritual foods accompany them throughout the feast as their followers and supporters eat and drink. But there is more, the crowds standing before the Cathedral’s doors and all around the plaza, were served by vendors offering ice cream, strips of sugar cane, ice cream, candies, parched corn, toqto, and so on. They also play a significant if generally unremarked role when the focus of commentators falls only on the Saints and Virgins.
Today the process continues as the Saints once again leave the Cathedral in their slow process of making their way back to their home chapels. Fireworks go off, bands play, dancers shake and turn, and food vendors ply the crowds. It is time to buy one of those snacks while waiting for more Saints to exit the Cathedral.