Folk Customs of the Azores

Personal stories of Azorean folk customs.


Most ethnic groups have their own set of folk customs which are unique to their culture. The people of the Azores have their own customs as well. If you are of Azorean descent, you may remember some of these -- I know I do. I remember as a child, seeing the dance, the Chamarrita, being done at weddings and the Holy Ghost Festival. Sometimes, the adults would let the children participate and that was always great fun. But, even just to watch the adults dance and interact with each other as they danced, was a joy to watch. The memory of it, still brings a smile to my face . . . . after all these years. :)

Of course, the Festival of the Holy Ghost was another custom that I remember from my childhood. Truthfully, I didn't understand it very much back then. I just knew it was like a big party with fireworks, lots of song and dance, linguica and sweet bread. Then, of course, was the culmination of it all on Sunday, with a wonderful parade where all the queens from communities far and wide marched.

Other Azorean customs that I will attempt to give a brief explanation of are the killing of the pig, whale hunting, windmills, and the Azorean guitar. There are many other customs of the people of the Azores that I have not mentioned here. I have attempted to explain only those that I have some limited knowledge or rememberances of. I invite anyone who has stories of folk customs from the Azores that they would like to share, to email me. I would be happy to post them on this site.

The photos included on this page were contributed by Susan Vargas Murphy (Uberlingen@aol.com) from one of her trips to the Azores. You will only see a small, thumbnail version on this page, but just click on the small image to get the full-size version of the photo. Then, use the back button on your web browser to return to this page. Thanks, Susan, for sharing these photos with us!

Chamarrita

Folk songs and dances are very important in most cultures. In the Azores, they were, and still are, an important part of the everyday lives of the people. Music, in all its various forms, is used to express joy, love, sorrow, thanks, and praise. Although there are many songs and many dances, I will describe here only the Chamarrita. This is a dance that is, I believe, popular on all the Azore Islands, but especially so on Faial and Pico. There can be many versions. As the dance has been handed down from generation to generation, and people have moved here and there, they sometimes changed the words. The dance itself, though, is a lively dance done in a circle. There is a caller and he will sing out directions to all the dancers. As I said, there are many different versions of this song, but here are two verses for you to enjoy:

A moda da Chamarrita
Nao tem nada que aprender,
E andar comum pe no ar
E outro no chao a bater.

Quero cantar e bailar
Com a moca mais bonita
Bater o pe no terreiro
Dar voltas a Chamarrita

The old Chamarrita dance
Does have little to learn more
Than, lift a foot in the air,
Stamp the other on the floor!

I want to sing and dance
Stamp my foot on the ground
Dance with the prettiest gal
In a Chamarrita Round

;

Please pardon my lack of using the Portuguese characters -- I haven't figured that one out yet. :)



Killing of the Pig


The pig was an important part of Azorean life. Most, if not all, families would have a pig that, when killed, would provide the family with meat and lard for the entire year. Because the Azores have a harsh climate, the pig could be especially important if crops did not do well or some other catastrophe befell the family. So, the day of the killing of the pig, A Matanca do Porco, is a day to be thankful and joyful that the family would be provided for another year. It was a day when relatives and friends would be invited over to help and also to participate in the celebration. There was much work to be done -- the women did all of the food preparation. There was usually plenty of wine and song to go around.

The actual pig killing was done by a matador, who might be a professional pig killer. Sometimes, though, he was not a professional. I know my husband performed this duty several times at the farm of his grandparents in California. The pig had been fattened up considerably throughout the year and was often so fat, that it could not move easily or quickly. It was captured by some of the men and would have its legs tied. Then, it would be put on a table where, after being cleaned, it would be stabbed in the neck by the matador using a long knife. All the people present, including the children would watch. This may seem pretty gruesome to us now, but not if we remember just what this pig represented to the Azorean people. It represented a successful year to them and the promise that the family would have food in the coming year.

After the killing, there was still a lot of work to do. The hair of the pig needed to be singed off and the skin was scraped. The intestines and organs were removed. The bladder of the pig was sometimes blown up and used as a ball by the children. The intestines were cleaned and used to make either morcelas (blood sausage) or linguica (a meat sausage). Most of the pig ended up being used with not much going to waste. This was always a happy time with much singing and feasting

I'm not really too sure if this is being practiced much in the Azores today. With more modern times and conveniences, this old tradition, may have largely faded out.

Remember to click on the small image to see it full-size

Preparing pig
Here, the skin and hair of the pig is being burned off with a type of torch.
Cleaning the pig
After the hair of the pig has been removed, it needs to be cleaned.
Hanging the pig
After the skin is cleaned, the pig is hung so that the blood will drip out and they can begin to cut it.
Processing the pig
The meat from the pig is being cut and processed. Notice what's left of the pig (at this point) hanging in the background.


Festival of the Holy Ghost

A Festa do Espirito Santo (the Festival of the Holy Spirit) is a yearly celebration to honor the Holy Ghost. It did not originate in the Azores, but is a much loved and practiced custom there and has continued now in many areas where Azoreans have settled. Many people from different areas, some from very far away, would meet . Sometimes, this might be the only time in a year that these people would get to see each other. As with all Azorean gatherings, music and good food are found in abundance.

I will not attempt here to explain the meaning of the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit, as it is known today as it may mean something different to me than it does to you. For my purposes here, it is enough to know that this festival is about the devotion of these very religious people to the Holy Spirit.

The celebration begins on the Sunday after Easter and will continue for the next seven or eight weeks. It finishes on Pentecost Sunday with the coronation. During these seven or so weeks, the crown and flag of the Holy Spirit are given to different families each week. It is considered a great honor to have them in your home! During this period of time, there is a lot of prayer that gradually gives way to a more festive time. This is repeated at each home the crown and flag reside in.

The customs of the various islands are all a little different and too many to go into here in more detail. But, the main ideas are the same. It is a time of great fellowship and caring among Azorean people, whether still in the Azores, or here in the United States. I have gone to many "Holy Ghosts" as a child living in California as I grew up in an area with a large Azorean population. The things I remember most, are the sounds and images of happy people greeting one another and enjoying each other's company. The songs and music I can still hear in my mind as I recall the dances that were held in the large hall at every Holy Ghost. There was lots of good food, including two of my favorites still, linguica and sweet bread. There were fireworks at night and a procession at a special Mass and parade on Sunday. I remember auctions being held for all sorts of goods that people donated. I was told stories as a child, of the auctions my grandfather attended where he would donate a pig or wagon load of vegetables for the auction. He would bid on it himself, sometimes win, and donate it back to be auctioned off again.

This last summer, I went to my first Holy Ghost in quite a few years. It was held in a little town in southern Oregon -- a place I did not realize had quite a large Azorean population. I only went on one day -- the last day, but it's funny how the memories came flooding back into my mind. We had sopas (soup) which is a meat broth with cabbage leaves, seasoned with mint and other spices, and served over thick slices of bread. While we were at the tables eating this and later, during the auction, the voices of the Portuguese men could be heard hollering out one thing or another, often directions or orders to each other. Like I said, it brought back lots of memories! :)


Whale Hunting

Hunting whales was a custom of the Azores, but was also a necessity for some. The islands are a relatively small place and there are a lot of hardships there. In some areas, because of volcanic activity, land to grow crops on can be difficult to find. Often, the men of the Azores were forced to look to the sea for their survival.

Many young men found the business of hunting whales to be a way off of the islands and out of their poverty. Many of them, under cover of night, made their way out to the whaling ships anchored in the harbor. The secrecy was necessary because of a law passed in Portugal, the year of which I am uncertain, that said all men older than 16, could be drafted into the military of Portugal and be made to serve 8 years. As it was illegal for these men to leave the Azores, they often resorted to stowing away on these whaling ships as their means of escape.

It wasn't an easy trip for them, though. The work was difficult and took them far from their home. The servitude often lasted for several years, being paid very low wages and enduring great hardships. Many of these men left their ships when they docked in America, often in the same secretive way in which they boarded back in the Azores. I suspect two of my great grandfathers did just that.

When we think of whaling, we most commonly think of it being done from ships out in the ocean, using harpoons to kill the whale. The whales produced oil that was used for lamps and also to lubricate machinery. However, when petroleum products became available, whaling began to decline. It reached its peak in the years between 1820 and 1850, but continued to a lessor degree for many years after that.

Whaling was also done from the shore, spotting the whales from land instead of from ships. From atop a high place, a whale could be spotted by his blow. Then, several Azorean men would climb into a small boat called a "canoa." These were about thirty-eight feet long and could be either rowed or sailed. Later, they would use small boats with engine power. When they were close enough to the whale, a harpoon would be used. That's when the "fun" began! The whale would thrash around violently, often smashing its great fluke (tail fin) into the water and smashing the boat and men if they got in its way. The whale would usually dive deeply into the bottom of the sea, often more than once. The hunt was not an easy task and was filled with danger from beginning to end. When the whale was finally dead, it would be towed to shore where it would be processed.

Today, most whaling has been outlawed in the world. Many species of whale have been hunted close to extinction. But, for a long time, it was part of everyday living in the Azore Islands providing many of our ancestors with what they needed for their survival as well as a means of escape to what they hoped would be a better life.



Windmills

Until I started my genealogy research and learned more about the Azores, I never thought of them as having windmills. After all, aren't windmills a Dutch-kind-of-thing? Not so! They are also to be found in the Azores. Click here to see a picture of a windmill in Pedro Miguel, Faial. This is on the property of Joe Maciel, grandfather of my friend and cousin, Susan Vargas Murphy.

The windmill has been used for centuries to get power from one natural resource, the wind. No one knows exactly when the windmill first appeared in the Azores. The first recorded word of one was on Terceira in 1818. However, they were reported to be on the island of Sao Miguel as early as 1633.

Windmills served the purpose of grinding or milling the corn that was grown, into flour that was used in a staple food of the Azoreans, bread. But, more than that, the windmill became a gathering place where people could meet and exchange the latest gossip and news. The miller usually was held in high regard in the community. Besides the skill of running the mill, he needed to know and understand the weather.

Windmills are no longer used to the extent they once were in the Azores, but some are being restored and serve as a reminder of the traditions of the past.



Azorean Guitar

The Azorean Guitar, or A Viola Acoreana, was first brought to the Azores in the 15th century. It has become the favorite musical instrument of the Azores and is used in much of the music. Over a period of time, the Viola has changed, making it larger so as to be able to play more notes. It was developed on Terceira and uses 15 strings. The other islands mainly use a smaller version of the viola called, Viola dos Dois Coracoes (the Viola of Two Hearts.) It has two hearts in the resonance box opening and uses 12 strings. Violas were often objects of real beauty and were made from pine, cedar, jacaranda, and other imported woods.

This instrument is held in high regard in the Azores as is the man who plays it. It is used in most songs as music has always been a big part of Azorean life. Almost every social gathering in the Azores involves music and the Viola is played then as part of the festivities.

Click here to see full imageGuitar
An example of an Azorean Guitar that belonged to Susan's grandfather. It was made in Faial and brought to the US in 1913.

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