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Fiesta

Fiesta!

On the last three days before Lent it was the custom in old St. Augustine to indulge in a lot of good-natured revelry. People paraded the streets in all sorts of costumes, playing on guitars and other musical instruments. In the evenings there were scores of parties, dances and masquerades. A popular diversion was a form of trick-or-treat, imported from the island of Minorca, in which bands of young men went about the city serenading the homes.

They expected a handout, customarily the traditional fromajadis washed down with a pitcher of home-made wine. Fromajadis is a cheese pastry and a Minorcan specialty. The ladies of the house prepared for these visits by baking up to half a barrel of these delicacies. The master of the house supplied the wine and the serenaders thanked them with a ditty ending "the owner of this house is a very polite gentleman." If the refreshments were not up to snuff, or worse yet, if they got nothing at all, they sang "the owner of this house is not a polite gentleman."

Another diversion was playing Indian, a practice introduced by Joe Ferrera, who had lived among the Seminoles. He and his friends would dress up as braves and perform a blood-curdling war dance. Another custom was the reenactment of St. Peter as a "Fisher of Men." A man dressed in fishing clothes went about the streets casting a mullet net over the heads of delighted children.

Between 11 and 12 o'clock on the night of Shrove Tuesday, the funeral of the fiesta was held. An elegant supper, table and all, was carried through the streets in a funeral procession, with much solemnity, and exactly at midnight the feast was gobbled up, thus "burying" the carnival.

Mostly, it was all in good fun, but like so many things, it got out of hand, making it necessary for Mr. E. B. Gould, publisher of the "East Florida Herald" to write an article criticizing the exuberance of some of the more lively participants during the 1825 fiesta. Evidently, they decided the media had been unjust (there's nothing new under the sun), because a few days later, Mr. Gould was burned in effigy. A dummy, representing the anti-fiesta editor, was paraded on horseback through the streets preceded by a standard-bearer carrying a white flag. The effigy was placed on a gallows in the Plaza. After a number of speeches a fire was lighted which consumed it, and the ashes were scattered to the four winds.

According to most commentators, the pre-Lenten fiesta was a charming custom much enjoyed by everyone in the old Spanish days, but when the American garrison arrived in 1821, it seems to have degenerated into a brawl which went on too long and was far too loud. By the end of the Civil War the custom had died out completely.


 
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