Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada (Ávila, 1515–Alba de Tormes, 1582) is known worldwide as Saint Teresa of Jesus and, more locally, as Teresa of Ávila. A mystic, Doctor of the Church, and reformer of the Carmelite Order, she was canonized as a saint in 1622. A festival in her honor is celebrated on October 15th, the anniversary of her death.
Naturally, Saint Teresa is the patron saint of Ávila, where she entered La Encarnación Convent at 21 years old to dedicate her life to her faith. She went from the somewhat wanton, comfortable, and disorganized social life of the Carmelite convents to the austerity, seclusion, and prayer-filled life that she imposed with her reforms of the 16 convents of the Discalced Carmelites which she founded all over Spain.
The city of Ávila itself seems to be immersed in that same spirit. The streets of the historical quarter, whose perimeter is fortified by one of the best-preserved defensive walls in Spain, seem to have a life of their own. The visitor is met with Saint Teresa’s presence on every street corner and in numerous businesses and products bearing her name, such as yemas de Santa Teresa, a famous dessert of candied and baked egg yolks. The month of October, which is dedicated to the saint, is a good time to visit Ávila.
The religious and cultural ceremonies of the festival all venerate the figure of Teresa of Jesus and the multiple facets of her life: sainthood, life, work, mysticism, and literary career. She penned important works on spirituality such as The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle (also known as The Mansions), as well as poetry, short works, and 409 letters published in several epistolary collections. Her body of work has been translated into several languages.
Although religious ceremonies play a central role in the Festival of Saint Teresa, this is also a time for fun and leisure. The program includes concerts of various musical styles, featuring pop artists known nationally and internationally; a carnival with carousels, rides, and food and drink stands; bullfights; folk events like parades and chocolatadas (hot chocolate parties); and a series of activities to entertain people of all ages, whether they have to do with culture, sports, or music (such as Flamenco Week).
The festivities begin days before October 15th with the pregón (proclamation) of the mayor, who is usually accompanied by a folk character on the main balcony of city hall. Then the gigantes and cabezudos, along with the tarasca, parade around the streets for the children’s entertainment. An offering of flowers is made to the image of Saint Teresa in Plaza del Mercado Grande. Representatives of the city’s most important public and private institutions participate in the offering. The festivities continue until the day of the 15th arrives—the last day of the Festival of Saint Teresa—when the city celebrates Día Grande. Crowds of people from all over the province of Ávila, Spain, and abroad come to the city on that day, including members of the Carmelite Order (men and women).
The most important religious ceremonies of the festival take place on the 15th. The bishop presides over the main mass in the cathedral, which gets jam packed with crowds. Then there is a big procession revolving around the image of the saint which, accompanied by police and military officers, is carried from the cathedral to the church dedicated to Teresa of Jesus. An enthusiastic audience fills all the streets and plazas of the historical quarter that the procession passes through.
The previous day, on the 14th, the Procesión Chica (“Little Procession”) follows the same route, but in reverse. The image of the saint is not the only image in this parade; it is accompanied by Our Lady of Charity who Saint Teresa adopted as her mother, devoting herself to this version of the Virgin Mary when at 14 years old she lost her own mother, Beatriz de Ahumada.