The feast of San Sebastián: devotion and commerce together in southern Chile

  • Mass in front of the centuries-old image of San Sebastián, which has been brought from the parish church to a plaza dedicated to the feast.
  • Sheaves of wheat with a holy card of San Sebastián were a popular souvenir, brought home to be displayed and to ensure abundance throughout the year.
  • Participants at the last novena Mass before the feast.
  • Ex-votos lined the walls around the plazas, testimony by ordinary believers to the power of San Sebastián.
  • Between masses, people approached the altar to pray briefly before the saint's image.
  • The image of San Sebastián is processed through the city.
  • The prayer to San Sebastián, posted inside the church and on the feast grounds, is one that many attendees can recite by heart.
  • An artist at the entrance to the plaza.
  • Kiosks lining many of the streets for blocks around the plaza offered opportunities to shop for a huge array of goods.
  • Many priests visited to provide opportunities for confession. This one, on the eve of the feast, took place near a wall of ex-voto plaques to thank San Sebastian for his help.
  • Statues of San Sebastián available for sale at a booth near the feast plaza.
  • Souvenirs held up in front of the saint's image in the plaza, whether for blessing or to show that this was a relationship that would last throughout the year.
  • Crowds in the plaza for one of the feast day masses.
  • Lining up to prepare for the procession of the image through Yumbel.
  • Faithful burning candles in large grates.
  • Between Masses, devotees come to pray in front to San Sebastián.
  • People lined up in the parish church throughout the day to receive a blessing.

Authors: Thomas M. Landy and José Antonio Vergara1

Yumbel, a city of about 20,000 people near the Bío Bío River, is the home to the largest devotional event in the southern region of Chile, the feast of San Sebastián. Culminating on January 20 during the height of summer in Chile, the celebration weaves together devotion, food, entertainment, and commerce.  

Though difficult to substantiate—this is not a feast where all attendees are together in one spot at the same time—the event is said to draw 500,000 or more people a year. In 2024, the year chronicled in this article, Chilean news outlets put the number of attendees at half a million people.2 Judging by the number of pilgrims, the San Sebastián sanctuary is the most important religious site south of Santiago. The sanctuary is also the site of a smaller fiesta chica that celebrates San Sebastián again on March 20. The national legislature has designated the two feasts as part of Chile’s national cultural patrimony.3

Given the strength of Marian devotion in Chile, manifested at feasts like those at La Tirana, Lo Vásquez, or Limache, it is perhaps surprising that one of the best-attended feasts in the country would focus on an early Christian martyr. For his many followers, though, San Sebastián is a powerful and trustworthy advocate to whom they can bring their prayers and needs. Generations of believers return to show their fidelity and ask for his help. 

Unpredictable as the choice of this saint as the focus of such a huge devotional cult may be, the format of the feast incorporates typical elements of Iberian Catholic religiosity. Devotees have the opportunity to encounter the saint’s image out in public, removed from its usual fixed place above the parish altar; to see it and pray as it is processed through many of the main streets of town; to attend Mass under the saint’s gaze; to pray for help; and to have holy objects and family members blessed. Quite importantly for many devotees, it is an occasion to make or fulfill a manda, a promise to God or a saint that often entails asking for some help or favor coupled with a promise to return to visit the saint again in a way that involves some sacrifice, after a specified period, usually at the next feast. A manda is not simply a transaction, but a way of establishing a long-term relationship with a saint, much like visiting a loved one and sacrificing something to show that the relationship is real and meaningful. Beyond the explicitly religious element of the feast, these days are an occasion for other social and commercial happenings that transform many surrounding streets into huge bazaars and entertainment sites.


St. Sebastian was a 3rd-century Roman soldier who was martyred for his faith. He is frequently pictured standing, shot through by arrows, and bleeding in agony. He is the patron of a city named after him in the Basque region in Spain and is also a figure of active devotion in several other parts of the world.  

For centuries, the area around Yumbel was the southern boundary of Spanish conquest. It was highly contested and was repeatedly retaken by the native Mapuche people. A small cedar statue of the soldier-saint had been brought there from Spain and had to be removed several times when the fortifications it was housed in were destroyed. After one of these battles, the statue was supposedly hidden in a field outside the town, only to be found again later. The rediscovery fits a pattern important to many venerated images in Spain and Iberian-influenced countries. Its discovery after being lost or hidden in an improbable place is treated as a sign of miraculous power and authenticity.4 In 1757, the image was returned to the rebuilt town. Another city vied to have the statue returned there, but legend has it that even two oxen could not carry it away because San Sebastián wanted to remain in Yumbel.5

The feast began as a local, rural feast dedicated to a parish patron saint, but after the construction of a railway line from Concepción in the late 19th century, the feast at Yumbel began to draw pilgrims and market-stall merchants from further afield.6  The train made day trips possible, but older pilgrims at the feast recalled a time when homes in Yumbel were typically open to any pilgrim who needed to stay overnight. “We could trust them, knowing that they were devotees of San Sebastián,” one woman recalled. (There are still no hotels in Yumbel, but the days when homes are open have gone. Asked whether one could trust pilgrims the same way now, she replied, “Well, the world has changed.”)7  

The Feast

In 2024, the celebration of San Sebastián began as always on January 11, when his image was transferred from its alcove above the altar of the parish church and processed to a similar spot above a covered outdoor sanctuary in a plaza dedicated for that purpose, surrounded by walls covered with ex-voto plaques to thank San Sebastián for favors received. Each evening until the feast, people gathered for a novena of daily prayers and Masses.  

January 20, San Sebastián’s liturgical feast day, was the peak of the celebration. The crowds grew on the vigil.  Devotees in bright green safety vests walked in the dark along the roads into town as part of their manda to the saint. 

The first of more than a dozen Masses began at midnight, continuing every hour and a half through the evening of January 20. Given the intensity of the summer sun, the crowd congregated in the shade of the trees in the plaza. Perhaps a thousand people were present at any given Mass. Whereas the crowd tended to skew older at the novenas, the feast day drew a broader range of people ranging from young adult couples to family groups spanning several generations. Teenage volunteers from the parish were present in red and yellow vests throughout the plaza and at the church to help guide visitors. Each of the Masses concluded with a prayer to San Sebastián. It was printed on handouts and posters, but a remarkable number of people knew this fairly long prayer by heart. 

Between Masses, at any given time, several dozen people stood and prayed before the saint’s image placed high above the outdoor altar. On a grass pathway in front, a few people, mostly women, crawled forward on their knees. To the sides, many faithful burned candles in large grates, attended by volunteer youth from the parish. A special chapel on the grounds was dedicated to confessions. It was consistently used, though the numbers were modest compared to the number of people at the Masses and certainly the number of people in town. Inside the parish church on the next block, visitors steadily came in to pray, and a line of 30-50 people waited for the opportunity to come up before the main altar for a family blessing and a blessing of some sacred objects that they brought.  

Outside, for blocks around, vendors under tents sold almost every item under the sun. A few stalls played loud, often disconsonant music that could be heard on the prayer grounds. Closer to the shrine were stalls that sold holy goods like statues (mostly San Sebastián, followed by a variety of Marian images and a small number of Sacred Heart statues; the farthest religious goods stall sold Buddhist and Hindu statues). After that, seemingly limitless stalls sold all sorts of inexpensive items, everything from school supplies, toys, candy, pickled vegetables, and household items to hardware and diabetic socks. The municipality licensed the commercial trade, leaving it to the parish to coordinate the sacred events. The combination made it hard to tell who was there to shop and who was there to celebrate the saint. Presumably, there was significant overlap, but it was also notable that aside from the toys some children carried, hardly anyone at the shrine carried bags that suggested they had first been shopping in the stalls.8

Aside from statues of San Sebastián and other saints available at booths near the feast plaza, the most common and characteristic religious souvenir was a small, bundled sheaf of a few colored stalks of wheat with a holy card of San Sebastián inserted in the middle. Vendors sell these for about US$1 near the entrance. They are used to decorate doors and placed throughout the house for the year the way some Catholics place a Palm Sunday palm frond in a room for the year. One interviewee explained that they were a “guarantee of abundance,” “that nothing good would be lacking” for one’s household. Another said that it was a way of blessing a home, “because San Sebastián walked the wheat fields in Rome before he was martyred… It’s a way of remembering his sacrifice.” She bought three, for her front door, dining room, and bedroom, and said that they should be replaced every year. While wheat has many symbolic associations, these souvenirs may relate to the “fiesta chica,” which happens in March during harvest time, or it could symbolically refer to the ancient rediscovery of the statue in a field.

Around 5:00 PM, the statue of San Sebastián was removed from above the altar and readied for a procession that passed in front of the church and through central Yumbel for about 50 minutes. It returns after that to its place above the outside altar and after Sunday masses is processed a short way back to the parish church.

Directing power and attention

Devotees repeatedly said that San Sebastian has great power to perform miracles. “He can do miracles for people who pray. I have seen benefits in my own family,” one woman reported.

As some told it, this derived from his willingness to die for Christ, not from some miraculous power attributed to him on his own. Many of the benefits ascribed to his intercession were only referred to obliquely, whether during interviews or printed on ex-votos. Some of the latter were clear: a diploma, a reference to a healthy child, while others merely thanked him “for favors conceded.” A few interviewees were hesitant to have the specifics of their manda or their prayer requests named or to be photographed fulfilling their mandas because that was perceived to be too self-aggrandizing and would seemingly undermine the manda. One woman, a just-retired teacher, came to give thanks that she had found such fulfilling work in her life and that she had been blessed with a good family.

San Sebastian is central to the event, but devotees rarely have a chance to get close to him. They can see him and be seen by him but there is never a chance to touch the image, as would be important in places like the Philippines or India, nor are there great crowds around between the masses specifically to see him.  While it would be easy to gain visual access, devotees don’t seem to spend that much of the day doing so. The altar design, though it brings Sebastian out among the people, restricts direct contact and the regular liturgies try to rechannel attention to the Mass, which is foregrounded. Sebastian is set high and far back from the people.  

The parish works persistently to channel devotion to San Sebastián towards Jesus. "Anunciar a Jesucristo caminando juntos," “Announcing Jesus Christ by Walking Together” was the theme for the feast that year. Above San Sebastián and the altar was a large, bright banner over the altar reading, “En Jesús Renacen La Justicia, La Paz y La Esperanza”: “In Jesus, Justice, Peace and Hope are Reborn.” During the procession, the focus of prayers was on Jesus and the Father.

Almost everyone, even some people who were there alone spoke about their experience of the feast in intergenerational terms. One woman in her sixties, wearing a red and yellow dress—these colors are associated with the feast, and women once often made special dresses in these colors to wear as part of their manda—began talking about her participation by recalling that she used to come with her mother. Another woman who brought her seemingly indifferent adult son simply said, “Parents have to educate children.” But he too explained that this was a tradition in his family that went back “generations and generations.” Many worried that young people do not show the same level of interest, but at least in terms of attendance, this hardly seemed to be worrisome. However unpredictable the devotion, San Sebastián seems to have a great sway over many people.

  • 1José Antonio Vergara, MD, is a public health specialist who teaches Anthropology of Health to medical students at Universidad San Sebastián, Puerto Montt, Chile. The account here is based on a visit to the feast in January, 2024, including conversations with more than a dozen feast-goers.
  • 2See, for example, “Festividad de San Sebastián en Yumbel congregó a 500 mil personas,”, January 20, 2024.
  • 3Camara de Diputados de Chile, Declara la Fiesta de San Sebastián de Yumbel, como patrimonio cultural inmaterial de la Nación, March 13, 2009.
  • 4To name a few examples: The image of the Virgin of Montserrat was supposedly found after having been hidden in a cave during the Muslim conquest. Santiago’s (Saint James’) body was miraculously found in a field near Compostella. The Virgin of Arantzazu was found in a Hawthorn tree in the Basque region, like the Virgin of El Rocío in a tree in Andalucía. Our Lady of Camarin, Guam was found floating in the sea.
  • 5The town was named San Sebastián de Yumbel a decade after it was relocated there, but since the 19th century, the town is simply known as Yumbel.
  • 6One account from 1900 puts the number of pilgrims at around 18,000 at a time when Yumbel comprised about 2,500 people. See Francisco Estan Muñoz Melo, “San Sebastián de Yumbel: Descripción Histórica de una Peregrinación en 1904. Análisis Desde un Punto de Vista Cultural y Social de una Festividad Religiosa (1870 – 1910),” n.p. The feast also spawned at least one smaller, similar occasion in the nearby mountains over the border in Argentina, among devoteees prevented from traveling to Yumbel.
  • 7More than a century ago, accounts of the feast identified problems like drunkenness at night and thievery, a reminder that the past is easily romanticied.  Muñoz Melo, “San Sebastián de Yumbel,” n.p.
  • 8It may be important to note that the addition of shopping stalls and commerce is nothing new. Francisco Estan Muñoz Melo notes that similar items were just a much a part of the feast in 1886, citing one account then that there were “more than two hundred street merchants who have set up small shops there, where you can find everything you want, from the most insignificant toy to valuable items.” (author translation). Muñoz Melo, “San Sebastián de Yumbel,” n.p.