Wandering through the streets of Lisbon today you might notice that the city is even more awash with colour than usual as local flower merchants pop up all around the capital, selling unusual and beautiful little bouquets, of wheat, herbs and spring flowers, known as ‘Espiga’. That’s because today the Portuguese celebrate “Dia da Espiga”, which roughly translates to the Day of the Spike. It’s celebrated annually on Ascension Thursday, the day when according to Catholic tradition, Christ bodily ascended to heaven. Whilst the festival is linked to the Catholic Church today, its origins likely go back much further – this is a deeply rooted ancient tradition, steeped in history and folk memory.
It’s not a holiday or tradition that I had ever heard of before, but it was in fact a national holiday in Portugal up until 1952 and is still celebrated as municipal holiday in various towns and villages around the country. Even the big cities of Lisbon and Porto still mark the day and many locals will pick up an ‘espiga’ whilst hurrying home from work.
This day was traditionally considered to be one of the holiest days of the year, and people were urged by the Church not to work, particularly for one hour, at noon, to honour its significance. And so, at midday people would down tools, shutter their shops and head to countryside to collect the herbs and plants they needed to make their ‘spike’. This hour became so important that the day also became known as ‘The Day of the Hour’.
The branch of the spike is usually made up of the same elements all of which are deeply symbolic: ears of wheat (in odd numbers) to represent an abundance of bread for the family; marigolds or daisies symbolise silver and gold or wealth; poppies bring love; an olive branch brings peace; a sprig of rosemary brings good health; and finally vine leaves represent wine and therefore joy. Once you’ve collected all the elements you need for your spike it is all tied together in a branch and hung up in the family home on the back of the front door and there it stays for the entire year, bringing prosperity and good luck, until it is replaced the following year with a new spike. It seems there are a few other old traditions associated with the spike – for example during a thunderstorm it used to be common to throw an ear of the wheat into the fire to protect the home from lightning.
The exact origins of this festival are obscure, but unsurprisingly it seems to have have its roots in the more rural central and southern regions of the country, and certainly predates the Christian era. It’s likely that the festival can be traced to the Roman and even Celtic periods, and was a celebration in gratitude to the goddesses Flora and Ceres that marked the coming of Spring. Over the centuries the Christian feast day supplanted this pagan celebration, but elements of the original agricultural rituals remained alive.
Today, it may longer be a national holiday, and the ‘sacred hour’ between noon and 1pm is no longer observed, but this ancient tradition remains alive and vibrant in the form of the ‘espiga’ – a little flush of countryside colour to bring joy to your day. So if you see them being sold on the streets of Lisbon today, pick one up and help this unique Portuguese tradition to endure and thrive.
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