Since our recent blog posts about the Dominican Republic cultural traditions got much interest and engagement, we’ve decided to continue writing on this topic. You may remember our previous posts about the Christmas, New Year and Three Kings Day celebrations. This weekend Dominicans will be celebrating another very important holiday. January 21 in the Dominican Republic is Altagracia Day or El Día de la Altagracia. This annual public holiday is a commemoration day of “Our Lady of Altagracia (High Grace)”, the protector of the Dominican people. Her portrait is kept in the Basilica of Our Lady of Altagracia in the town of Salvaleón de Higüey.
On Altagracia Day, this basilica becomes a major pilgrimage destination. Over 4,000 people from all over the island and neighboring countries attend the religious ceremony in Higüey each year on January 21. It’s a day when believers make offering and give thanks to the saint for the help and protection received in times of difficulties and affliction. Those who can’t travel to Higüey usually go to nearest churches to worship Our Lady of Altagracia. For those who don’t participate in religious festivities, Altagracia Day represents an opportunity to spend time with family or go for an inland trip. Constanza and Jarabacoa become especially popular places in January. Unusual for the Caribbean region, low temperatures attract a lot of visitors looking for some extreme. This year Altagracia Day is on Monday which means an extended weekend.
What are the origins of Altagracia Day?
According to historians, Altagracia Day has its historical roots in the year 1512. It was the year when a parish was constructed in Salvaleón de Higüey following the orders of the Bishop of Santo Domingo. By that time, the brothers Alonso and Antonio Trejo, originally from Extremadura, Spain, had arrived to Higüey and had brought the image of the Virgin of Altagracia. The brothers were the first to build a mill to produce sugar which then started a whole sugar industry in the province. As the Trejo brothers were respected people in Higüey, the locals followed their veneration and adoration towards the Virgin of Altagracia.
Another reason why the saint got so much importance was the port of Higüey. People traveling from the Santo Domingo island (the ancient name) to Puerto Rico left from the port of Higüey. But the journey was dangerous because of numerous pirates who attacked ships. That’s why while waiting for a ship, travelers would go to the Higüey sanctuary. There they would implore the protection of the Virgin against the dangers of the sea and pirates.
However, there is another version why Altagracia Day is celebrated on January 21. On this day in 1690, the Spanish army successfully defeated the French troops in the historical battle of Sabana Real de la Limonade. On the eve of the confrontation, the Spanish soldiers asked for the help of the Virgin of Altagracia. It’s believed that the victory was only possible thanks to her protection. As a result, January 21 became Altagracia Day, though before 1690 its celebration took place on August 15th. And Our Lady of Altagracia became the protector of the Dominican people.