From the time of the Middle Ages, people in Southern France have honored Les Saintes Maries—”The Saint Maries”—with Sara’s Procession to the Sea. Candles in hand, the crowds of worshippers take part in a ceremony that has remained the same for these past centuries, honoring the Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome, who, along with Mary Magdalene, are said to be the first people to see Jesus’ empty tomb. The ladies then sailed from Alexandria, Egypt to France, along with a mysterious figure, “Dark Sara,” who was possibly their servant. She is known now as Sara Kali, which means both “black” and “gypsy” in the gypsy Rom language.
On May 24th, the relics of Sara Kali, the patron saint of the four gypsy tribes who live all over France, are brought to the sea from the “High Chapel” amidst singing. The statue of Sara is then carried by the gypsies to the sea, symbolizing a welcome to the saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome. The following morning, May 25th annually, there is a mass, followed by setting “the Craft”—which holds statues of the two Marys—out to sea. The bearers are accompanied by an enthusiastic crowd, who stand faithfully by as the bearers carry the Marys into the sea to symbolize their faith and the saints’ arrival at this little village. The bishop, on a fisherman’s boat, then blesses the pilgrims and gypsies, the region and, of course, the sea. The procession then returns to the “High Chapel.” Later in the afternoon the joyous group returns to the sea to once again to bring the statues and saints back to their home, the church.
The annual festival marks a time when gypsies and locals interact comfortably, perhaps for the only period each year, as gypsies are much maligned all over Europe. For the tribes— Manouches, Tziganes, Gitans, and the largest group, the Romanies—whose nomadic existence eschews group collectives, Sara’s Procession to the Sea enables both a reunion and a time to conduct important business such as marriages and baptisms.
As often happens, despite prejudices, racism, and deep adherence to personal religious principals, tradition wins out and this remarkable amalgam of disparate spiritual history is faithfully carried out each year. For the Marys, and surely for Sara, this veneration would likely come as a surprise, though legend has it that it was their fervent preaching that converted France to Christianity in less than a generation. For the international mashup of gypsy, French villagers and tourists, it is a spectacle for the mind and the heart.