José Hila of PSOE did two years before handing the vara over to Antoni Noguera of Més for the next two years. | Miquel A. Cañellas


In days of yore, when men would nick whatever land they thought they could get away with nicking, disputes that didn’t end violently required the intervention of a judge. Towards the end of what is taken to have been the High Middle Ages - we’re talking ninth and tenth centuries - the Iberians borrowed from Arabic in modifying ‘al kadí’ to arrive at ‘alcalde’.

The concept of the municipality was starting to take root around this time, and each municipality was naturally rooted in its land and who owned which bits. The judge therefore started to acquire a role of some importance, as he was the arbiter of disputes, and the principal item in an alcalde’s armoury wasn’t his sword but his stick.

Back in the day, a key measure was the ‘vara’. The translation of this, where measurement is concerned, can vary. The variable vara could thus be a ‘rod’, although the length of a rod, as had been determined by the Anglo-Saxons, was far greater than the more accepted translation of a ‘yard’. As was the case elsewhere, the Iberian yard was equivalent to three feet, but it clearly depended on the average length of the average male foot by area. Portugal at one time had the longest vara of all - equivalent to 1.1 metres.

Whatever the equivalent was (they were to eventually settle on 0.65 metres), a measuring device was needed. The judge therefore had his stick, or rod, in order to measure the Iberian rod, aka yard. Once they had finally agreed on how long a yard was, the alcalde’s measurements were indisputable. The stick stuck. It later ceased to be a measuring stick and became the symbol of office - the ‘vara’ - and the office was that of the alcalde, the mayor.

Accepting that, strictly speaking, a wand is a ‘varita’ rather than a vara, I have personally always preferred wand when referring to the mayoral symbol. This is for no better reason than that it sounds more ridiculous than a stick, rod, cane or baton, all of which are legitimate translations. There again, a wand, as in a magic wand, does make some sense as mayors can sometimes end up being handed the vara almost by magic.

Garrick Ollivander was Harry Potter’s wand supplier, and he obviously knew a thing or two about wands. “The wand chooses the wizard ... it’s not always clear why,” he informed the young wizard. Garrick was right, as it isn’t always entirely clear why or how a mayoral wand ends up with who it does.

No, actually it is clear, once one understands how all the negotiations have led to the magic moment when the new mayor is to be handed the symbol of office. There are only so many mayors whose parties have secured absolute majorities and therefore don’t need to entertain pacts of some sort, which can include - as was the case in Palma from 2015 to 2017, for example - when there is mayoral job sharing. José Hila of PSOE did two years before handing the vara over to Antoni Noguera of Més for the next two years.

For victorious mayors who are already mayors, there isn’t quite the same sense of occasion as they can’t exactly hand the vara to themselves. If they’ve been mayor on numerous consecutive occasions, they don’t get to keep the vara. Or at least I don’t believe they do, even though one can’t be entirely sure of the provenance of a vara and a ‘bastón de mando’ (baton of office) for all sorts of purpose that are available on eBay.

Other than at investitures of mayors, the existence of the vara isn’t apparent. Occasions when it is include ceremonies of the type which owe everything to how things were with the vara back in mediaeval days.

If a king happened to turn up in a given municipality, then he would be handed the vara as he was the greater authority. She may not have been a queen, but Francina Armengol was the president of the Balearics, and so when ceremony demanded, the vara was handed to her. Or not, as famously happened in Santa Margalida for the La Beata fiestas one year.

The mayor, Joan Monjo, didn’t hand over the vara. He maintained that this had nothing to do with disagreements with the government but was because the president was late for the procession. There were some who suggested that it was precisely because she was late that he had refused to give her the vara.

A notable occasion when a whole load of varas were on display - 183 in all - was in November 2017 when 183 Catalonian mayors went to Brussels to protest their displeasure at the dismissal of the Catalonia government.

This show of defiance posed a slight logistical problem when it came to the flights. The mayors were not allowed to take their varas on as hand luggage as they were deemed to be dangerous weapons. Four suitcases were needed to transport the varas to Brussels in the hold.

So, the stick can occasionally take on rather more than just a symbolic appearance. But it no longer resolves disputes. If your neighbour’s trying to nick some of your land, the mayor can’t just wave his magic wand. There again, he never did.