Hairy John at the Felanitx fiestas. | GORI VICENS

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One of my favourite Mallorca tales concerns María Isabel Francisca de Asís Cristina Francisca de Paula Dominga de Borbón y Borbón. The Infanta Isabel, as she was more easily known, was the most popular member of the Spanish royal family. Or so it was said. If so, this popularity was to be drawn into question in one part of Mallorca.

The Infanta visited Felanitx in the summer of 1913. This was a place that could boast the title ‘Ciudad’ - a city in that this honour had been bestowed on it by Maria Cristina, the wife of the Infanta’s brother, Alfonso XII. She was Queen Regent, Alfonso having died in 1885. The year after his death, she declared Felanitx a city. It was at that time the third largest municipality in Mallorca after Palma and Manacor and it was also the main centre for winemaking on the island.

So, the Infanta wasn’t visiting any old Mallorcan village. This was a city with royal privilege. And to mark her visit, the city authorities decided to lay on some entertainment. The story goes that a youth of hairy appearance, accompanied by the music of local instruments, was commanded to dance in front of the Infanta. Her reaction to this youth can be interpreted in different ways - literally interpreted, that is. The Infanta was not greatly amused. She demanded that the idiot be taken away.

The inhabitants of the village-city were so upset by this insult that they said that the dance would never again be performed for ‘foreigners’. As things have turned out, this isn’t so. The dance is now a fiesta in the cultural interest, liable to be witnessed on June 24 each year by all and sundry - citizens of Felanitx, neighbouring municipalities, tourists and even members of the Royal Family. The dance is that of Sant Joan Pelós - Hairy Saint John.

There are a few Hairy Johns, only of whom has been declared to be in the cultural interest. They all have in common the fact that their dances celebrate the fiestas of John the Baptist, Sant Joan. They therefore appear on June 24. But with one very notable exception. In Pollensa, Sant Joan Pelós prances in advance of his hairy brethren elsewhere in Mallorca. The Pollensa John defies the apparent logic of June 24 by in fact sticking to a script that others have not - and that script is Corpus Christi.

Theatrical elements of Mallorca’s fiestas and traditions mostly all have their origins in the processions for Corpus Christi. Demons, giants, cossier folk dancers and Hairy Johns can all be linked to the solemnity of the most holy body and blood of Christ. And the reason why is fairly simple. In order to try and ensure attendance, there were forms of entertainment. If these drew inspiration from superstition, legend or paganism, then no matter, so long as a Christian feast of immense importance was celebrated by all. Corpus Christi was once one of the pre-eminent fiestas on the calendar.

Where Sant Joan Pelós is concerned, he was originally linked to the rituals for Christmastime, specifically those of Saint Stephen (Boxing Day) and John the Evangelist (December 27). Until at least the sixteenth century there were rituals in the liturgy at Palma Cathedral in which Saint Stephen would appear on Boxing Day in a long tunic with his face covered. The following day there would be a repetition; this time involving John the Evangelist, who would wear a veil of white silk over his face.

John the Baptist had at one point been added to this ritual. In contrast to John the Evangelist, the Baptist had a mask and wore a hairy cape and sandals. In one hand he would hold a lamb. In the other was a cross on which were the Latin words “Ecce Agnus Dei” (Behold! The Lamb of God). A combination of John the Evangelist and John the Baptist was incorporated into the ceremony for Corpus Christi, and it was to be the image of John the Baptist that prevailed, and it was to be this image who danced.

Putting dates as to the development of the Hairy Johns is far from straightforward, as indeed is explaining the development. In Pollensa, as one researcher has noted, there was a documentary gap for the Corpus Christi procession of some 450 years - from 1415 until 1871, which was when the Archduke Louis Salvador wrote about the procession and also included an illustration of one of the two eagles.

The eagles are now unique to the Sant Joan Pelós dance in Pollensa, but why is this? Another source maintains that the earliest reference to eagles comes not from Pollensa but from Felanitx. And this wasn’t until 1671. Yet the eagles of Pollensa are certainly a lot older, and two theories as to their origins definitely place them in the mediaeval era.

One of these theories takes us back to the Christmastime origins - the symbol of John the Evangelist, and not John the Baptist, is an eagle. The other theory, one advanced by Pollensa chronicler Miquel Bota Totxo, is that the Corpus Christi procession was mostly funded by the local weavers’ guild. They provided the dresses (now elaborately adorned with jewels) and introduced the eagles. Held in place around the waist, the eagles were similar to the horse figures - the cavallets. And if they had been modelled on the cavallets, they wouldn’t have appeared until some time in the second half of the fifteenth century, as the cavallets weren’t introduced to Mallorca from Barcelona until 1458.

A further idiosyncrasy of the Pollensa dance, which has only recently been abandoned, concerns the carrying of a lamb in a bag by the Hairy John. Other Johns did have lambs, but they ceased to many years ago. In a 1966 article on Corpus Christi religious representations in Barcelona and Mallorca, Father Gabriel Llompart Moragues observed that the Felanitx John always rests one hand on a hip. Why? “I suspect because in the past he held the lamb of God”. He went on to add that no one in Felanitx could ever remember there being a lamb.

The real lamb is no more, but even so, Pollensa’s Hairy John maintains his uniqueness, not least the fact that he dances for Corpus Christi. Or, one should explain, on the first Sunday after Corpus Christi.