Drums and turnips for an early Christian saint and martyr

Part of a painting of Saint Sebastian by Il Sodoma.
Part of a painting of Saint Sebastian by Il Sodoma.
  • San Sebastián as well as numerous other towns and villages around Spain celebrate Saint Sebastian's Day

January 20th is St Sebastian's Day, the patron saint of athletes and archers. This early Christian saint and martyr is often depicted in art and literature as a handsome young man, tied to a tree or bound to a stake, with numerous arrows piercing his body.

Sebastian is said to have joined the army in Rome in the year 283. He converted numerous people there to Christianity while successfully hiding his own faith from his leaders. He became a captain of the Praetorian guard, but in 286 it was discovered that he was a Christian and the emperor Diocletian saw this as a betrayal and ordered him to be led to a field and tied to a stake, where archers would fire arrows at him.

Sebastian was left for dead, but when a widow known as Irene of Rome went to collect his body she discovered that he was still alive, took him back to her home and nursed him back to health.

Later, he stood in a place where he knew Diocletian would pass, and when the emperor appeared he harangued him about his cruelty towards Christians.

Astonished, because he believed Sebastian had died, Diocletian ordered him to be seized and clubbed to death, and his body was thrown into a common sewer. From there it was retrieved privately by a Christian woman named Lucina, and buried in the catacombs at the Calixtus cemetery in Rome.

Unsurprisingly, January 20th is a very important day in the town of San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, where the Patron Saint's Day celebrations include the 'tamborrada' drum parade and the drumming continues for 24 hours.

Elsewhere, the festivities are quieter but no less strange: in the village of Piornal, in Extremadura, for example, local people very enthusiastically throw more than 20,000 kilos of turnips at a character known as the 'Jarramplas', a devil-like creature who steals cows, before pursuing him out of town. The person portraying the Jarramplas has to wear protective clothing beneath his costume, to avoid being injured. This tradition is said to symbolise the expulsion of everything that is bad.

In Acehúche, which is also in Extremadura, people wear animal skins and painted masks to dress up as the 'carantoñas', a type of monster animal, and parade through the streets.