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The Red Waistcoat Festival in Portugal

Posted in Customs on Tuesday, 11 June 2013

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This edited article about Portuguese customs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 288 published on 22 July 1967.

Imagine an excited crowd lining the pavements along the streets of your town or village. In the distance you can hear shouting and the sound of animals and men running hard.

Suddenly, round the corner of the street, run several young men chased by one or more large black bulls. The animals’ eyes are blazing and their heads are lowered so that their sharp horns catch any man not quick enough to dodge their charge.

You might be forgiven for believing that the bulls had escaped, but if you lived in Vila Franca De Xira, in the Ribatejo province of Portugal, you would know that they had been deliberately let loose in the streets, and that this was one of the highlights of the ‘Red Waistcoat Festival’ in honour of the herdsmen of the plains.

It is a dangerous festival. Every year there are injuries, and sometimes deaths, among the young men who decide to try to outsmart the untamed bulls.

The Red Waistcoat Festival is one of the most colourful and popular events in all Portugal, but unlike most festivals, it does not recall any historical incident or fable. It is simply an occasion for the ordinary people of the region to honour the horsemen of the plains who make their living rearing and tending bulls which wander over the rich pastures.

The plains are irrigated by water from the river Tagus. They contain some of the richest land in the country and produce wheat, rice, wine, cork, olive oil and salt. One of the most dazzling sights to any visitor is the long, straight lines of pyramids of salt drying out on the banks of the Tagus.

Another curious feature of this area are the houses of the fishermen who catch the eels and shad sold in the local markets. These houses are built on ‘stilts’ and seem to be standing guard over the countryside.

It is the herdsman with his red waistcoat who gives the festival its name. Indeed, his clothing is very distinctive, with a green cap edged with wool, a white shirt under the waistcoat, a short, rough wool jacket, white goatskin shoes with square heels, and a spur on one foot only.

The jacket usually slips from one shoulder, where he rests his goad – a long pole, iron-shod at the handle and sharpened at the point to keep the more unruly members of his herd in check.

His horse is one of the strong Peninsular breeds and his saddle is a high one in the Moorish style, with a high stirrup-strap from which hangs a stirrup of wood plated with brass.

The festival includes exhibitions of badges, stamps, pictures, cigar rings (the brand seals from cigar wrappings), agricultural machinery and displays of local costumes and dancing. There are many competitions in which the herdsmen can display their skill in horsemanship and in controlling animals by the use of their goads. The individual horseman who shows the greatest dexterity is awarded the coveted ‘Spurs of Honour’.

Bands and guitarists come from all over Portugal to serenade the crowds, and the whole town is illuminated and full of people from the surrounding countryside who have come to join in the celebrations.

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