Santana de Parnaiba sawdust carpet, Sao Paulo Brazil

Santana de Parnaíba

by Elizabeth Willoughby

The conspiracy lives

It's approaching midnight — a restlessness begins to permeate this town. The quiet commotion stirs villagers to steal out of their homes in the middle of the night and head for the historical centre. Laden with sacks, buckets and blueprints, each conspirator heads to a designated area to execute his portion of the plan. By sunrise, the coalition is in full swing.

But this is no political uprising or coup d'état. It's Corpus Christi in Santana de Parnaíba, and the locals have a unique way to celebrate. At the beginning of June, participants select a three-metre long picture-pattern from the town's priest to reproduce directly onto the road using coloured sawdust. (Freedom of design ended when Jesus Christ was caught carrying a ghetto blaster on his shoulder.) On the day of Corpus Christi, the three-kilometre-long rug will be walked by a church procession starting and ending at the Main Church of Sant'Ana.

The 1,700 bags of sawdust (four truckloads) used by the artisans are acquired from the local furniture factory, and are coloured with homemade paint. Hoping for calm, dry weather on the eve of Corpus Christi, artisans head out to the streets long before sunrise so they have time to complete their creations by 3:30 when, following afternoon mass, the procession leaves the church to walk the carpeted streets carrying the ostensorium.

The mother of invention

Santana de Parnaíba, only 35 kilometers from São Paulo, has a deep connection to its past. At 421 years, it's older than São Paulo itself, and the buildings of the historical center have been restored and are maintained true to their heritage. But these sawdust compositions are a fairly new way of celebrating the holy day, claimed to be contrived by Emília Gil d'Assunção in response to a personal dilemma. Previously, only windowsills of homes and offices were decorated with pots of red São João flowers.

However in 1967, the day of observance fell on the same day as O Dia dos Namorados, Brazil's version of Valentine's Day – June 12. Then 31-year-old Emília was working as a schoolteacher in Santana de Parnaíba, though her family lived in Salto de Itu. As was usual, they expected her home for the religious event. Her father didn't know that Emília had a boyfriend, and she was not about to tell him.

Desperate to come up with a reason why she should stay in Santana close to her beau, Emília thought of the carpet making. She ran the idea by the priest, the mayor and the school director. Everyone approved. Together with her fellow teachers, the first street carpet was created and this form of the celebration has grown every year since.

Corpus Christi today

Today, Santana de Parnaíba attracts over 30,000 people who come and go throughout the day, some for the morning or noon mass, some to watch the carpets being made, visit the craft fair and have lunch, and some to watch the procession.

Emília hasn't participated in the rug making since 1971. That is when she got married and started her own family – with the same young man who inspired her to invent the sawdust rugs in the first place. Thirty years later, they are still married and Santana de Parnaíba still celebrates Corpus Christi in the same curious, yet resplendent, manner.

Images and article ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2001

This article was published in the Sunday News, São Paulo 2001 and in German language here at 2015

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