Festa: A Medieval Portuguese Tradition Thrives (and Evolves) in the California Delta

When Azorean Portuguese arrived in the California Delta during the Gold Rush, they brought with them a Medieval tradition that has proved resilient in a sea of constant change: the Holy Ghost Festa.

“My dad always talked about ‘the footsteps, the footsteps, the footsteps,'” said Jim Souza, one of the organizers of the Freeport/Clarksburg Festa. The oldest in the Delta, it was founded in 1893, and has been held at the same hall since 1905.

“He was referring to the fact there was a lot of history there.”

The particulars of this tradition have changed, but its core tenet remains the same: feeding people, for free, as an act of generosity and sharing.

Festas began the 1400s in mainland Portugal, inspired by the lore of Queen Isabel, who took food from her own table to feed the poor during a famine. But their roots trace back even further to a radical utopian ideology promulgated by an Italian monk born in 1132. (Story continues below photos.)

When the Portuguese settled in the Azores in the mid-1400s, they took the tradition of Festa with them, and it thrived there, even as it mostly died off on the mainland. Azoreans comprise the bulk of Portuguese who immigrated to California in the 1800s, and the tradition followed them here.

For Souza, Festa has always been part of his life. “I was born into it,” he said. “My parents were involved in it. That’s where they made their first connection!”

As a kid, Festa meant getting a new pair of jeans and cowboy boots and maybe a hat that he’d wear to the dance. “And obviously you’d see all your cousins and Portuguese friends and whoever else came along,” he said.

Festa also involves the crowning of a young queen, in honor of Queen Isabel. Professor Diniz Borges, the founding director of the Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute at Fresno State, said the queen is a feature that arose in California.

“There were no queens in the Festas in the Azores. We don’t know where or why it started, but they’ve become part of the tradition in California,” he said. And now some Azorean Festas have begun adopting the tradition.

The Queens Court in television news coverage of the 2024 Freeport/Clarksburg Festa – click to watch video.

An even newer evolution is the growing presence of non-Portuguese at Festas. “More and more they attract a lot of outsiders,” Borges said. “I’m happy to say we now have queens who are not of Portuguese backgrounds, and people playing in marching bands who are of different ethnicities as well.”

But there is one constant that dates back to Medieval origins: “They are religious in nature, but the church doesn’t control them,” Borges said. “There is a Mass, there is a coronation, but the whole idea of the serving of food free of charge to everybody, the idea behind the celebration, whether it’s music or parades or whatnot, is it’s all done by a committee of men and women.”

Souza became the youngest president of the Freeport/Clarksburg Festa’s organizing council at 17, and he remains a key organizer to this day. It is a mountain of work – “five days of preparation, one day of festivities, one day of cleanup.”

But it’s worth it.

He tells the story of a psychic advisor who came with a potential buyer to view the property next to the Hall where the Festa is held. The advisor told the buyer he could see someone on one side of the property who wasn’t happy.

“What do you see over there?” the buyer asked him, nodding at the Hall, Souza recalled.

“There’s just nothing but happiness,” the advisor said. “There’s children everywhere and they’re all smiling.”

Delta Cities and Towns with Festas

2024 Festas

The Portuguese Society of America publishes a list of Festa dates and activities (PDF).

Documentary About Festas

The Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute produced the following short documentary about Festas: