Freelance Spain
Fiestas in Spain

Nobody knows how to throw a party quite like the Spanish do. By Nick Inman.

No nation on earth is quite as good at enjoying itself as Spain. There are so many fiestas that even if you could attend more than one a day you would not be able to see them all in a single lifetime.

Even the smallest village fetes its patron saint on his appointed day, or else marks the changing seasons with a procession or pilgrimage, or some bizarre ancestral rite. "I always get the feeling in Spain that something unexpected is going to happen at any moment," says author and broadcaster Ian Gibson, who lives in southern Spain. "You never quite know what's coming."

Romeria del RocioThe simplest festival may be little more than a public party which draws the populace into the street. But many are built around complex costumed rituals of obscure origin (Carnival and Easter Week in rural Spain), some stunning communal central event (the burning of gigantic papier mache sculptures in Valencia), or an opportunity for the young to experience fear and danger, or to prove their valor (most famously in Pamplona).
Whatever the form, the essence of a fiesta is always the same. It is a collective catharsis, a chance for the populace to take a break from normal life and let off steam, to go safely wild. For a day or a week, often with celebrations going on around the clock, play and passion are given precedence over working and routine. A fiesta is a time of license. You do more or less what you want: dress up; go where you please; drink to excess; go to bed when you want (if at all); make as much noise and mess as you want, where and when you want. To take part in a fiesta is to be drawn into another world; one in which the normal rules of engagement have been suspended. But don't be deceived: a fiesta is not unbridled chaos. Every fiesta is a unique blend of the programmed and the spontaneous. And behind them is a rich and fascinating tradition, often with roots traceable to the Middle Ages, but with origins in Roman times or prehistory.
The most extraordinary thing about Spanish fiestas is that they have survived at all into the modern age. These are not stage-managed acts of national heritage worship maintained out of a duty to the past. These are ancient traditions that are now being kept alive and vibrant by a generation brought up on convenience living and entertainment on demand. Spanish fiestas evolve with each generation. They are as irrational, spontaenous, irreverent as they have ever been - all that twentieth century man or woman needs to be reminded of as an antidote to the over-organization and depersonalization of the modern world.

Nick Inman is the author of the forthcoming book, A Passion to Celebrate: The Fiestas of Spain.

Photo by J D Dallet

Related story:
Christmas in Spain

A Date In Spain
Some of the major fiestas in Spain, and some of the more unusual ones.

MAJOR FIESTAS

Feast of the Three Kings. In Spain, children receive their Christmas gifts not from Santa Claus but from the Three Magi on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). On the previous day there are parades in most towns depicting the arrival of the three gift bearers.

Carnival. This pre-Lent festivity, with obvious pagan roots, was banned under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in the early 20th century and later under Franco for its raucousness and lascivious nature. Now reinstated, it is celebrated all over Spain. The most famous are those held in Cádiz in southern Spain, and on the Canary Islands.

Easter. Spain is famous for its Holy Week processions, which take place between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday. The more elaborate ones involve enormous, heavily ornamented floats with the images of Christ or the Virgin Mary, often carried on the shoulders of men, in processions which can last many hours, escorted by hundreds of penitents wearing the familiar hooded costumes.

Fallas de Valencia. Elaborate tableaux of papier mache and wood, some of which take months and costs millions of pesetas to build, go up in flames on the Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) in Valencia, on March 19, the feast day of Saint Joseph.

Seville Fair. The most famous example of an Andalusian "feria", combining promenades of horsemen, bullfights, open air "casetas" where fiesta-goers in colorful flamenco garb congregate to eat, drink and dance. The fair lasts a week and usually takes place two weeks after Easter.

Jerez Horse Fair. A typical Andalusian fiesta with the accent on horses, which are an important feature of the Sherry-making town of Jerez. There are displays of horsemanship, bullfights, flamenco. The fiesta takes place in mid-May.

Romeria del Rocío. The biggest religious pilgrimage in Spain congregates some one million people for three days at Whitsuntide (May or June) around the Shrine of Our Lady of the Dew (popularly called "La Blanca Paloma", the White Dove) at the edge of the marshes in the Doñana National Park in southern Spain. Many pilgrims travel by horse or in ox-drawn carriages from various points in Andalusia.

Moors and Christians. In spring and summer, mock battles of "Moros y Cristianos", featuring citizenry in period costume plus lots of noise and fireworks, take place in many coastal towns of eastern Spain.

San Fermín. The most famous aspect of Pamplona's annual fair (July 6-14), immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises (Fiesta), is the daily running of the bulls through the streets of the city at dawn.

SOME OF THE MORE UNUSUAL ONES

Los Picaos. On Holy Thursday and Good Friday, barefoot penitents - known as the "picaos", the stung ones - flagellate themselves until they bleed, in San Vicente de la Sonsierra (Rioja).

Walking on Coals. Men walk over a bed of red hot coals on the Night of Saint John, June 24, in San Pedro Manrique (Soria).

Wine Battle. On June 29 the wine-growing town of Haro, in Rioja, holds a Wine Battle, in which participants douse each other with red wine.

Procession of Coffins. In Santa Marta de Ribarteme (Pontevedra) those who have survived some life-threatening illness participate in a procession on July 29 in which they ride in the coffins they would have occupied had they been less lucky.

New Years in August. When a power cut prevented villagers in Berchules (Granada) from celebrating New Years Eve to the chimes of the town clock in 1994, they decided to welcome the new year at the beginning of August, and have done so ever since.

Tomatina. On the last Wednesday in August the town of Bunyol in Valencia stages a messy Tomato Battle in which thousands of pounds of ripe tomatoes serve as artillery for the fiesta-goers.

All Fool's Day. December 28 (the Feast of the Innocent, marking the day Herod had the infants of Nazareth slaughtered) is Spain's equivalent of April Fool's Day, observed with pranks and practical jokes. In some towns, it is the excuse for a fiesta. In Ibi (Alicante) locals battle each other with flour. In Velez-Rubio (Almería), a citizen is appointed mayor for the day and has anyone who shows up in the town square arrested and taken off to the local lock-up.

See also:  "La Palma: All white on the night" by Joe Cawley
"Nobody fights dirty at La Palma’s talcum-powder battle. Joe Cawley, of The Sunday Times, saw the most fragrant Spanish fiest [...]"

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