Since starting to learn Spanish a year ago, I’ve been lucky enough to make quite a few trips to Spain. Something which has surprised me about Spanish culture is the variety and sheer number of festivals celebrated throughout the year: saints’ days; cities’ patron saints’ days; religious holidays; local food and drink festivals; gypsy festivals… And they all vary from place to place. Some festivals (such as Semana Santa and Día de los Reyes Magos) are celebrated all over Spain, while other fiestas are local – even tiny towns and villages eagerly celebrate their towns’ annual feast days with fireworks, food, drink, music, and general entertainment.
The first Spanish fiesta I took part in was entirely by accident. Last February, I was visiting Barcelona for a friend’s birthday, and it so happened that our visit coincided with the festival of Santa Eulàlia. According to the information I’ve found online, it’s intended as a children’s festival, but having experienced it as an adult I can testify that its charms definitely extend to those of us who are no longer small. With amazing illuminations of public buildings; castellers (think human castle-builders: they send little kids to the top wearing crash helmets, my heart was in my mouth watching them); traditional Catalan dancing in the plazas; and gegants (giants: ordinary humans wearing massive papier mache heads), Santa Eulàlia was a quirky spectacular. I was officially hooked.
Then, on 29th September, my novio and I were staying with his parents in Cantabria. A local village, Puente de San Miguel, was celebrating its namesake’s special day: the Fiesta de San Miguel. In the UK, we call that day Michaelmas, although I believe it’s largely a forgotten thing- the only time I’ve known the festival alluded to in England is in the name of the Autumn term at the University of Oxford- Michaelmas term. This local fiesta for San Miguel was on a much smaller scale than the one in Barcelona, but I was happy to join in by eating a large quantity of pinchos and little glasses of sweet wine, followed by a chocolately porra – a kind of fat chocolate churro topped with more chocolate.
We were then back in Cantabria for Christmas, and we took one of the little cousins to the parades for the Three Wise Men. In Spain, it’s not Father Christmas who brings the presents, but instead the Reyes Magos. And you don’t get to unwrap everything on Christmas morning, either- because it took the reyes until Epiphany to reach baby Jesus, Spanish kids also have to wait until the end of the first week of January to open their gifts. The night before, the reyes ride camels through local towns, followed by various participants in costume, and they collectively act out the Biblical story of the Three Wise Men’s journey to Bethlehem: I guess it could be described as a kind of street theatre. We saw the celebrations in Santillana del Mar, an exquisitely pretty honey-toned pueblo just outside Santander. It’s even better in the summer when you can sit outside a bar and admire Santillana’s sunny beauty.
I’ve written about Semana Santa elsewhere, but an especially touching element of this fiesta is the fact that young children and even babies are actively involved in this all-encompassing event that’s equal parts merriment, mourning, and tradition. Check out the mini nazareno (penitent) and his mum above.
Just this past weekend, while English people were celebrating their national day (and Shakespeare’s birth/deathday) on 23rd April, Catalans and Spanish people as a whole were celebrating Sant Jordi/San Jorge. In England, the celebrations can bring about controversy, as sadly the symbolism of the St George’s Cross is, for some, associated not just with national pride but with the ideology of far-right groups.
Happily, this is not the case in Spain. While I (sadly) wasn’t in Barcelona to celebrate myself, I was the very lucky recipient of the following gifts:
It’s been explained to me that Sant Jordi is the Catalan version of Valentine’s Day, when traditionally women give books to their male partners, and receive red roses. However, these days it’s also common to give both a rose and a book to your loved one, and not just by Catalans, as the tradition has caught on all over the country. I’m especially looking forward to reading Mary Beard’s latest book, as I’m planning a trip to Rome this summer with a friend who teaches Classics and I don’t want to be shown up.