On March 15, some recall the dreaded Ides of March.
But in Spain, after a long, dark winter, celebrations of Spring are in full swing! In Valencia, to be exact, on the sunny, southeast coast of Spain you will encounter one of the most spectacular, noisy and downright incendiary spectacles on the planet. Called Las Fallas (the torch) it is a celebration of fire and light that coincides with the Feast of St. Joseph and welcomes the arrival of spring.
Like most modern festivals, Las Fallas probably originated with the pagan fire rituals for the Spring Equinox, March 21. But more recently, it was 15th century artisans and carpenters who contributed to the annual burnings.
During the winter months of short days and low light, the workmen used oil lamps mounted precariously on makeshift wooden structures called parots to illuminate their work. The advent of the longer, brighter days of Spring made the parot unnecessary and the workshops began burning them in the street. The fires were fueled with whatever bits and scraps of wood and other junk materials were collected from the neighborhood – a kind of “spring cleaning”. Later, the parot was “humanized” – given a hat or a few articles of discarded clothing and voilá, the modern ninot was born.
As the celebration continued to evolve, it became linked to the Feast of St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters, on March 19. Today, St. Joseph’s Day is a focal point of the fiesta; the day which culminates the weeks of celebration and the year of preparation.
The modern ninot (puppet or doll) is a far cry from a simple parot burned in the street. Today, each guild, group or neighborhood that constructs a ninot spends as much as 900,000€ and a year’s worth of work by hundreds of volunteers to produce a prize winning ninot for the week-long fiesta. The organizing committee for each group is called the casal faller and is responsible for raising finances, choosing a theme and overseeing construction of the ninot. As many as 700 of these structures, typically made of cardboard, wood, plaster and papier mache, may appear during Las Fallas. They are generally satirical and frequently bawdy, often ridiculing well-known political and cultural figures. If a celebrity is involved in a scandal, one can be nearly certain that it will be depicted in a ninot. Standing as many as five stories tall, the ninots require the aid of cranes to move them to the more than 350 locations around the city where they will ultimately be burned.
Of all the ninots, one, selected by popular vote and called the ninot indultat, is spared the fiery fate and ends up in the Museo de las Fallas.
Seven Major Parts
Similar to other fiestas in Spain, Las Fallas is a combination of history, comedy and religion. While some of the rituals begin as early as March 1, the vast majority are held during the five major days from March 15-19, each year.
There are seven major parts that comprise the nearly week-long celebrations which last from early morning until late into the madrugada. (the wee hours of the morning)
La Despertá – the “wake up”
Each morning at 8:00 am, which for Spain is ridiculously early, brass bands emerge from the various neighborhoods. They parade through the streets playing loud and lively music and are accompanied by falleros who start off the day by exploding loud fireworks in accompaniment.
La Mascletá is without a doubt one of the most exciting aspects of the entire celebration of Las Fallas. Daily, beginning on March 1, in anticipation of the week-long festivities to come, crowds begin to gather in and around the Plaza de Ayuntamiento just before 2 pm. The Plaza de Ayuntamiento is the large main square of the city, surrounded by tall buildings with balconies facing the Plaza. In the center of the Plaza are strung thousands of fireworks, pyrotechnics and gunpowder – all set to explode simultaneously – resulting in an ear-shattering display lasting about two minutes. The cheers and shouts of the assembled crowd are drowned out by the explosions and at the end of the two minutes, dark smoke hangs over the Plaza like a cloud over a medieval battlefield.
As the smoke and the acrid smell of gunpowder clear, all that remain are the empty shells of the firecrackers littering the ground. The crowds move off and the area is cleaned in preparation for the next day’s display.
It is here that pyrotechnicians compete for the honor of providing the fireworks for the grand finale on March 19.
During the night of March 15 – 16, after a year of planning and construction, the fallas emerge. The uppermost parts and the “finishing touches” are applied after they are placed at their designated sites. While the Valencian word “plantá” is loosely translated as the finishing touches, the meaning has evolved to refer to that moment when the falla is completely finished, with the last details added by the falleros and falleras. Some modern fallas are very large and this can be a difficult task, but by dawn of March 16, the fallas should be ready.
L’Ofrena de Flors – The Offering of Flowers
This is the religious portion of the celebration and has taken on such significance, that it is now considered the central piece and continues over two days, March 17 and 18. The Patron of Valencia is the Blessed Virgin in the title of Our Lady of the Forsaken – La Virgen de los Desamparados – or La Geperuteda, as she is affectionately called due to the fact that her gaze is downcast.
Despite having her own week-long fiesta in May, the Virgen has also become an integral part of Las Fallas celebrations. Every community of falleros takes part in the procession, all dressed in beautiful regional costumes. They process to the Plaza outside the Basilica, where a massive wooden silhouette of the Virgen is placed, and leave bouquets of flowers which are used to fill in the wooden form and to create a huge tapestry on the outside wall of the Basilica.
The entire city of Valencia is alive with these processions. The falleros move through the streets in magnificent colorful attire, with bands playing traditional folk music, dancing, and firecrackers.
The smell of the hundreds of thousands of flowers permeates the air throughout the city, not just around the Basilica. The image of the Virgen is not burned, but remains until all the flowers have died, weeks later.
Els Castells and La Nit del Foc – the night of fire
Originally, the River Turia flowed through the center of Valencia. However, following a history of devastating floods, the city decided to divert the river to the south of the city in order to prevent future disasters. Today, the riverbed is a connected series of parks, paths and playgrounds used by the citizens of Valencia for their entertainment and enjoyment.
On the nights of the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th of March, the riverbed becomes the site of enormous fireworks displays, with each night progressively more spectacular and exciting. The fireworks culminate on the night of March 18 – La Nit del Foc – Night of Fire – when more than 4,000 kilos of pyrotechnics will provide a visual thrill to more than 80,000 spectators.
La Cabalgata del Fuego – the procession of fire
March 19, the feast of St. Joseph is the final night of Las Fallas. At 7 pm., the Cabalgata del Fuego – the Fire Procession – begins at Calle Colon and proceeds to the square at Porta del Mar. Since the central theme of Las Fallas is the element of fire, the procession includes exhibitions of various rites and traditions from around the world which have fire as a basic feature. It incorporates music, floats, rockets, street performers, people in costumes and, of course, pyrotechnics.
La Cremá – the burning
On the final night, March 19, beginning at 10 pm., Las Fallas are burned. Prior to the burning, each one is laden with fireworks strategically placed in holes which have been cut into the structure. The falla itself is ignited either during or after the fireworks have exploded. The crowds which surround them are kept at bay by barricades placed by the local fire brigades which strictly oversee each burning in order to prevent the spread of fire to local buildings. But the heat of the fires, especially from the larger fallas, also serves to keep on-lookers at a safe distance. The structures are designed to collapse more or less vertically, also to protect both the spectators and surrounding buildings.
Sometimes there is a Falla Infantíl, or a children’s falla, which is located near the main one, and is smaller and without the bawdy and satirical themes which are typical of the fallas. These are usually burned first, at 10 pm. The burning of the main fallas begins throughout the city at midnight.
The main falla is burned, at about 1am.,in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.
Since even the largest fallas burn within 15-20 minutes, it is impossible to see them all, but if you want to share in the traditional end of the festivities, go to the Plaza del Doctor Collado at around 2 am. This is where the bomberos (firemen) come to celebrate at the end of the evening. The crowds cheerfully tease and ridicule the firemen, who, after burning the last falla, gleefully chase the crowd around the Plaza showering them with the firehoses.
At this point, after weeks of celebrations and activities, most people are exhausted and ready to head home to sleep.
If you consider visiting Valencia during Las Fallas, be sure to plan early, as this is a major international festival attracting hundreds of thousands of people who flock to the shores of the Mediterranean to participate in this unique rite of Spring.