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This chapter considers the rites, customs and beliefs of our farm workers from time immemorial. Some of those practices date back to ancient times and have a magical slant. Others have been endorsed by the Christian calendar and liturgy and have been part, down through the centuries, of a culture that should have at the very least the standing of cultural heritage. Many of those beliefs and customs are waning but there were still in full force and effect when recorded several decades ago[1].

Symbolic customs and rites: solstice fires

From time immemorial, different ancient rites have been practiced around the feast day of St. John the Baptist, which coincides with the summer solstice. Fire in the shape of a bonfire plays a key role among those rites. On the 23 June, at dusk on St. John’s Eve, bonfires are lit on the land for chapels dedicated to him and also in the countryside. This practice has now extended to the streets and squares of urban centres.

The commemoration of the birth of St. John the Baptist coincides with the moment when the sun has reached its highest point. The sun was at the centre of the organisation of productive activities in the past. The winter solstice indicated the revival of the sun and the summer solstice that the crops were nearly ready

Blessing the fields and seeds

The Feast Day of the Intervention of the Holy cross on 3 May was the main date in the calendar of the blessing of the seedbeds in spring, with blessed crosses being placed in the fields[2].

Bell-ringing and spells against storms. Moving the saint's images

Until the 1950s and 1960s, spells were said in many chapels and parish churches against hail and lightning or the evil spirits considered to cause storms.

In some rural district, those spells were cast daily from the May Holy Cross to the September Holy Cross and a peal of bells that was the spell was added to the dawn Angelus.

In other districts, the bell that was the spell was tolled every Sunday in spring and part of summer, when the hail in the storms could cause damage. The curse and prayer formulas used were taken from the Roman Ritual. When there was no priest and the threat was imminent, the sexton or hermit would curse the storm.


There were no specific measures to protect the fields from bad weather. The farm worker was perpetually looking at the sky and had no means of protection against blizzards, frost or storms with hail, and droughts. They could only resort to religion to protect the fields in the past.

Religious processions to chapels and shrines to pray for rain was a very widespread practice in the rural areas of the Basque Country until recently. Popular religiosity also directed those collective prayers to protecting the seedbeds and sowings and for the plants to flourish, which were still weak in spring, so that they would produce a good crop.

The prayers were very similar in rural towns. In many towns, at least one person from each farmstead and family would attend the prayer sessions; and still in the distant memory of the people surveyed, they remembered that anybody who failed to send a representative would be fined. The councils of the villages in the past entered into agreements with the church chapters to say prayers and require the local residents to attend by punishing any who failed to do so (Bernedo-A). The public prayers were held on different occasions:

  • Prayers established by the church calendar: the St. Mark prayers (25 April) and prayers on the three days prior to Ascension Day.
  • Occasional prayers at time of drought or plague.
  • Annual prayers during pilgrimages to shrines.
  1. Gurutzi ARREGI. Ermitas de Bizkaia. Bilbao: 1987, 3 volumes and Origen y significación de las ermitas de Bizkaia. Bilbao: 1999.
  2. ETNIKER EUSKALERRIA. Casa y Familia en Vasconia. Atlas Etnográfico de Vasconia = Euskalerriko Atlas Etnografikoa = Atlas Ethnographique du Pays Basque. Volumes I & II. Bilbao: Etniker Euskalerria; [Vitoria-Gasteiz]: Eusko Jaurlaritza; [Pamplona]: Government of Navarra- Bilbao: Labayru Institute, 2011, pp. 735-754.