A street performance during Semana Grande

A Brief History of Spain’s Top Cultural Festivals

Festivals are a great way to absorb the culture of any place, and Spain has many such festivals sprinkled all along the year. At the heart of these festivals lie religion, history and local legend. For the natives, it is a time for dressing up, music and dance, food and drink and general merry making. Fireworks adorn the sky, beverages overflow and the costumes are as elaborate as possible. The following are a few of Spain’s cultural events and the history behind them.

Semana Santa

Mourners with a statue of the Virgin Mary, Spain
credit@ The Bogota Post
Parade during the Holy Week, Spain
credit@ Discover France and Spain

Semana Santa or the Holy Week in Spain is celebrated to commemorate the final days of Christ leading up to Easter. The celebration mainly consists of elaborate processions carried out by the brotherhoods. While most of the other countries organize Easter egg hunts and splurge on scrumptious chocolate, Easter time in Spain are made of masses, floats and processions.

Celebrations in Spain last all week. Dates vary according to the calendar. It begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Monday. The main part of the celebration are the religious processions. Brotherhoods that were formed during the Middle Ages wear silky robes and costumes and parade around the streets. Their faces will be covered with pointed hoods. Along with the brotherhoods, mourners and floats are an important part of the processions. The floats are enormous and elaborate and depict statues of Christ on the cross, Virgin Mary and Biblical events like the Last Supper. The floats are carried by men and women who won’t be visible beneath them. The mourners symbolize the mourning of Christ’s death. They are usually women and are dressed in black with lacy veils and carry candles. Despite mourning Christ’s death, the processions are lively with drummers and brass bands. Seville, Granada, Zamora, Salamanca and Valladolid are some of the best cities to witness Easter week in Spain.

Feria de Sevilla

Women performing the flamenco dance, Feria de Sevilla
credit@ gidgkp. org

Two weeks after the Holy Week in Spain comes the Feria de Sevilla or the Seville April Fair. As is the namesake, the fair is held in the capital of Seville and lasts for one week, beginning at midnight on Saturday and ending on the following Saturday.

As in many cultural events, the fair started out as a relatively low-key event when Basque José María Ybarra and Catalan Narciso Bonaplata, two counsellors from Northern Spain,  organized a livestock fair at the Prado de San Sebastian, in 1847. The approach of the first anniversary of the fair brought on an air of festivity and by the 1920s, it became one of the biggest events in Spain. Every day of the fair, the leading citizens of Seville ride in carriages to La Real Maestranza, the official bullring or meeting place of breeders and bullfighters. The carriages are decorated. During the entire fair, beautifully decorated marquees known as casetas are set up on the banks of the Guadalquivir River and the huge fairgrounds. The casetas are owned by political parties and associations, prominent families of the city, clubs and trade unions. The party- eating, drinking, dancing and merry making- begins on the streets and then continues within the casetas. Food stands dot the fairgrounds and streets. Along with the fair comes an amusement park with its many games and roller coaster rides. The fairgrounds will be bathed in the glow of more than 20,000 light bulbs. Women are adorned in beautiful polka-dotted flamenco dresses while men wear traditional farmers’ clothes and parade around the streets.

Las Falles

Burning of the falles during Las Falles, Spain
credit@ CNN

Las Falles in Valencia, Spain is a five day festival when basically things are burnt in the streets, giving way to huge bonfires. It originated during the middle ages when carpenters burnt wooden pieces to celebrate end of winter and the arrival of spring. Over the years, old clothes and rags were added, and later so were the tiny statutes and puppets that are seen today in Valencia. Falles refer to both the festivities and the monuments that are burnt during the celebrations. A falla (singular of falles) is built of many ninots (puppets) arranged together, usually to depict scenes or characters ranging from celebrities to politicians.

Each day of the festival brings something unique. While the actual festival is from the 15th of March to the 19th, locals of Valencia start festivities during the first week of March. The festival is kick-started with La Despertà or the ‘wake-up call.’ Every day at 8 am, when each neighbourhood has its own brass band marching around the streets with music, while the locals tag behind throwing firecrackers. La Mascletà is one of the most spectacular display of fireworks that begin on 1st March. From the first to the last day of the festival, each locality sets of fireworks at 2 pm. While each locality has its own fireworks, the honour of lighting the fireworks on the final day (March 19th) is competed for at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. La Plantà (15th March) is the day on which the falles are arranged finally for the burning. The next day, the winning falles will be announced and the ninot indultat chosen. The ninot indultat or puppet will be saved from the bonfires for prosperity and displayed at the local Museum Fallero. On 17th and 18th March, La Ofrenda or offering flowers to the Virgen de los Desamparados, the patron saint of Valencia, takes place at the Plaza de la Virgen. Flowers are arranged on the statue of the patron so as to create a giant, floral cape. The early morning of 18th March (around 1.30 am), known as Nit del Foc (Fire Night), the most spectacular fireworks are lit at the Passeig de l’Albereda. On March 19th is the Cavalcada del Foc or the Fire Parade when a lively parade accompanied with music, fire displays, floats, street performances, costume- clad people, perform along the along Carrer de Colón and Plaza de la Porta de la Mar. The final climax of the entire festival is the La Cremà, when the falles are burnt.

Moros y Cristianos

Moors dressed up during Moros y Cristianos
credit@ Travel and Exchange
Christians dressed up during Moros y Cristianos
credit@ AlicanteOut

Moros y Crisianos is a festival celebrated to commemorate the numerous battles between the Moors and the Christians during the Reconquista period (8th to the 15th century), hence the name ‘Moros y Cristianos.’ While it is celebrated all around Spain, the Valencian community and the Alicante region take the festivities to another level. There is no fixed date or month for the Moros y Cristianos- some cities celebrate in April while others take up festivities in July.

During the festival, the cities and its natives are taken back to the Medieval ages. It symbolizes the Muslims capturing the city and the battle put up by Christians to reconquer it. During the entire festival, people wear festive costumes taking inspiration from Medieval times. The Moors adorn themselves in ancient Arab clothes, carry swords and sabres and ride along on elephants and camels. On the other hand, Christians wear attires with fur, metallic armour and helmets. They ride horses and fire shots from arquebuses (a long gun used during the 15th century). Gunshots, fireworks and medieval music accompany the parade, which ends with an enactment of the Christians winning a battle and parading around a castle. Religious events are held to honour St. George. The streets and balconies are packed with the locals taking all the sites in and cheering those who parade the streets. Food, especially paella, is cooked in huge amounts.

While the festivities last around four days, the locals prepare for it all year round. This includes fund raising and preparing the costumes. Battles between the Moors and the Christians are enacted. Until the festival ends, the cities are bound to be covered with fog of gunpowder.

Semana Grande

Marijaia the macot, Semana Grande
credit@ Culture Trip
A street performance during Semana Grande
credit@ Pinterest

Semana Grande or Great Week or Aste Nagusia is a nine day festival in August celebrated mainly in Bilbao, Northern Spain. The festival honours the Virgen de Begoña (an apparition of the Virgin Mary who is said to have appeared to the local people of Bilbao in the 16th century). It also celebrates the Basque culture. Basques reside in North-west Spain and boast of their own language and customs.

Semana Grande originated during the early 1970s with a few Basque cultural events, bullfights, theatrical performances and opera. Harrijasotze (stone lifting), aizkora (wood chopping) and sokatira (tug- of- war) were added in 1973. It was in 1978 that all the events were culminated into one big festival known as Semana Grande. A week before the festival, Mari Puri Herrero was paid to create a symbol or mascot for the festival, thus giving birth to Marijaia, a puppet- like figure.

Events of the nine day festival ranges from concerts, fireworks, parades, sport competitions and of course, traditional Basque dances. The beginning of the festival is marked by the bang of a txupinazo rocket. After this, Marijaia is brandished at the balcony of the Arriaga Theatre, with hands thrown up in the air. Concerts, performances at the theatre, bullfights, workshops for kids, gastronomic competitions and an egg and flour food fight take place throughout the fest. Basques incorporate their own music, dance and stone lifting and wood chopping competitions. One of the most iconic part of the week are the enormous Gargantúa monsters who stalk the streets and swallow children. The children slip through a huge slide inside the monster and come out through the rear end. On the ninth and final day of the festival, Marijaia is burnt in view of an enormous crowd. She will be created again next year in time for the festival.


Women wielding drums during  Tamborrada
credit@ Hella Basque

Tamborrada in Spain is mainly celebrated in San Sebastián. The festival begins at midnight on January 19th and ends at midnight on January 20th.

The festival originated during the Napoleonic Wars when the city was taken over by the French. During the invasion, the local women would gather around the public fountains to collect water. Soldiers would come and parade the streets by banging drums, much to the anger of the locals. They reacted by poking fun at the soldiers- they created drums of their own out of pots and pans and water barrels, banging wooden spoons on them. During the 1830s, the drumming practice was soon incorporated into the Donostia Carnival in San Sebastian, which celebrated the patron saint and the city. The many societies and clubs that made up the city kept up with the tradition and it soon culminated into what is known today as the Tamborrada festival.

To signal the start of the festival, the city flag is hoisted at the Plaza de la Constitucion at San Sebastian. People gather here and sing the city song, which is then followed by parades with drums and marches. The drummers are clad in various costumes like that of soldiers, cooks and traditional clothes. Towards the end of the festival, everyone heads over to the Plaza where the city song is sung once more. The flag is lowered until the next year.

From sombre parades to food fights, Spain has it all, making it one of the best places to be to experience culture. Ole!

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