“Vive les Saintes Maries! Vive la Sainte Sara!”
The celebrant on the altar, with the garment embroidered with the symbols of the Camargue, stylized profiles of bulls and horses on the cross created by the Marquis de Baroncelli in the early 1900s, calls with a loud voice to prayer, interspersed with songs, in the church-fortress, where the gypsy women are adorning glittering mantles and crowns the statue of Saint Sara, brought out of the crypt always lit by candles, to prepare her for the exit between the streets of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, where once a year, on May 24 and 25, the ritual of pilgrimage is repeated by thousands of Roms, Manouches, Tziganes and other gypsies from all over Europe and even from other continents.
The statue of Sara can be found in the Church of Saintes Maries de la Mer, wearing multicoloured dresses and jewelry.
Known around the world as the “Patron Saint” of the Gypsies, who return to honor her here every May, Sara poses for the historiographer an enigma that doesn’t seem ready to be resolved.
According to a Camargue tradition, the Black Sara was the Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome’s servant, relatives of the Virgin Mary, and their companion on the banks of the Rhône. They arrived in these shores after the persecutions in Palestine followed the death of Jesus (perhaps together with Mary Magdalene, whose remains are venerated in the splendid basilica of Saint Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in the Var, Lazarus and Mary Bethany, but this is another story).
Another tradition, attributed to the Gypsies, see her as a Gypsy who was settled on the Provençal shores and who was the first to welcome, right here, the exiled women from the Holy Land.
In truth, no one knows who Sara was, nor how worship of her established itself in Saintes Maries de la Mer, to where people came to pray well before the French Revolution. For the Gypsies, who saw themselves in her and adopted her as their appointed protector, she is “Sara-la-Kâli”, a tzigane word which means both “gitan” and “black”.
The first mention of Sara can be found in a text by Vincent Philippon written around 1521: “The Legend of the Saint Marys”, of which the manuscript is in the library of Arles. Here we see her collecting money across the Camargue to provide for the small Christian community. This practice of “soliciting” might have later made her likened to a Gypsy woman.
These festivals go back to the Middle Ages and their ceremonies are still the same; the crowd, candles in hand, sing and praise the Saint Marys.
An event that has gradually become a major tourist attraction, where the religious fervor of the pilgrims is mixed with a scenario where gardians on horseback accompany the statue of Saint Sara to the sea. People, behind her, walking to the sea, are also walking towards God. The painted wooden crate where they are kept the remains of the Saint, is lowered with a double rope from the top of the church during the long, evocative ceremony that begins the celebrations, in which gypsy musicians improvise small shows in the church square and in the various corners of the village, photography enthusiasts are looking for of an unusual shot, and gypsy families use the May meeting to seal alliances and marriages or to argue over disputes.
The appointments are, year after year, always the same: May 24th at 10 am solemn mass in the church, dating back to the 9th century and enlarged up to the 12th as a fortress to resist the Saracen raids, considered the only construction visible from much of the Camargue plain due to its height. At 3.30 pm the saints’ crate is sent down to the other side and at 4pm Saint Sara leaves the church. From here, accompanied by the faithful, by the Gardians and by a colored mass of people, after having walked the narrow streets of the town, she is taken to the beach to greet and thank the sea, then returning to the church.
The same analogous sequence takes place on the 25th, when to leave in the morning is the boat of the saints, followed by the blessing of the sea and, in the afternoon, the ascent of the crate in the small room near the bell arch and accessible by roof.
In the splendid context of the park area of the Camargue, the pilgrimage of the gypsies and the history of St. Sara herself, the small black statue that in the martyrology is not there but it is revered by people of different origins and beliefs, it is possible to summarize the need for a today where, against divisions and grudges, a unifying moment must be found.