Popular celebrations in Catalonia

By Gina Calvet
“Castellers”, the human towers
World Heritage by UNESCO in 2010 and internationally known as human towers represent the strength, unity and balance of the Catalans. They have their origins in the 18th century in the south of Catalonia although nowadays there are “colles de Castellers” almost everywhere.   Normally we can enjoy their performances in the squares of villages and cities during the main festivities and the main meeting takes place during the festivity of Sta. Tecla, the patron saint of Tarragona, where the best “colles de Castellers” formed by men, women and children of all ages compete by setting up the most incredible human towers.  
St. John’s night  
Following the ancestral tradition to celebrate the summer solstice, the “Revetlla de St. Joan” is probably the most important night party after New Year’s Eve.   Runner volunteers bring a flame from the top of the mountain of El Canigó in the Pyrenees in order to light all the bonfires on the night of the 23rd of June throughout the Catalan speaking territories which were part of the former Crown of Aragon.   On the night of the fire, you will hear the firecrackers all night long and everything that deserves to be burnt so as not to bother the future goes on the bonfires. Friends and families come together celebrating the shortest night of the year eating a cake called “coca” and drinking cava. It’s a  magic and noisy night with open-air parties and concerts in the streets, squares and beaches.  It’s the summer solstice and lucky for everyone, the next day is a bank holiday.  
St. Jordi, the day of the rose and the book  
Probably one of the most beautiful days in Catalonia is the 23 of April, when the celebration of the main patron saint, St. Jordi, takes place. According to legend, St. Jordi killed a dragon to save a princess and gave her a red rose that grew up from the blood of the beast. It is our St. Valentine’s day.   On the 23rd of April, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and Josep Pla died, therefore, it’s the day of literature as well, so you can see rivers of people in the crowded streets bringing roses and buying books.   On that day book shops and florists set up on the streets and in the main cities writers are signing their books. It is simply an amazing day! Celebrated throughout Catalonia the main meeting point that day is Les Rambles in Barcelona, so if you prefer to avoid the crowds, better stay away from this lively street, or go very early in the morning. 
11th of September, the national day of Catalonia  
The national day of Catalonia, far from being a celebration it is the commemoration of the assault of Barcelona by the Bourbonic troops on the 11th of September 1714 after a hard siege.  This assault supposedly ended the War of the Spanish Succession and the end of the Catalan  Courts. Usually, in the morning there are flower offerings in representative points and in the evening large demonstrations in favour of independence take place.
“Festes de Gràcia” and “Festes de Sants”  
In summer, around the 15th of August, a lot of villages in Catalonia celebrate the main festivity.  In Barcelona, the most famous festivity besides the celebration of the patron saint La Mercè takes place in the charming neighbourhood of Gràcia which still preserves the taste of a village.  The neighbours of several streets work together all year long developing a theme to decorate their streets with handmade and recycled materials. During the week, the whole city enjoys activities designed for all ages during the day and concerts in the streets at night. Just when “Les Festes de Gràcia” finishes, if you need more, it’s time for “Les Festes de  Sants”. It’s maybe a smaller version but it retains the same concept and spirit.  
The Patum of Berga  
The quiet, small city of Berga is completely transformed during Corpus Christi for five days when thousands of visitors come to celebrate “La Patum”, a medieval tradition recognized by  UNESCO since 2005.   The villagers participate in the representation of the main events as medieval characters in theatrical performances, playing traditional music or dancing with fire.  La Patum is celebrated with solemn activities in the morning and with a festive mood at night when the most anticipated moment occurs, the Plens. Els Plens are fire devils that dance to the rhythm of drum music and a melody composed in the XIX century, transforming Berga into a hell of fire and party. 
Temps de Flors in Girona  
During one week in May, the centre of the old town of Girona changes completely when decorated with flowers. Visitors from everywhere enjoy original flower creations in gardens,  courtyards, monuments and even on the steps of the cathedral. 
Despite an increasing number of citizens who declare themselves as not religious, many catholic traditions are still standing and linked with social life, gastronomy or even theatre representations all year long. During Easter, traditional masses and religious processions are celebrated everywhere. One of the most impressive representations is “The dance of the death” in the small village of Verges, where at night during a procession, a skeleton dances while marking your death time (top image).   Theatrical performances of the passion of Christ take place in villages like Olesa de  Montserrat or Esparreguera, and in Barcelona, the façade of the Sagrada Família that represents the Passion of Jesus is lit with special illumination.   The sweetest moment is on Easter Sunday and Monday when children eat a special chocolate cake called “Mona” given by the godparents.  
Santa Llúcia’s Christmas market  
Around two weeks before Christmas, around 13th December,  we can buy all the traditional elements to prepare  Christmas in “La Fira de Sta. Llúcia”. In about 200 small stalls in front of the cathedral of Barcelona, you can find Christmas trees, nativities, Christmas lights and more.
“Festes de la Mercè”  
According to legend Barcelona‘s former patron saint Sta. Eulàlia was substituted by “La Mercè” in the XVIII century and that is probably why every year during the celebration of the current patron saint of the city, La Mercè, it rains a lot like some sort of revenge.   From the 24th of September and for one week, there are activities for all ages all day long everywhere in the city and at night there are concerts in the main squares. Castellers, traditional dances, a massive running race and the spectacular fireworks on Montjuïc are just some of the hundreds of activities that thousands of people enjoy in the streets. 

Popular festivals in the Basque Country

by Jon Tojal
Once upon a time in the Basque Country

The most representative element of the Basque people is their language, Euskera, considered the oldest language on the European continent. This ancient language is deeply rooted in the Basque people. It has served as a vehicle for the customs, traditions, myths and legends of the Basque Country. It is a clear differentiating element since this language is nothing like any other in the world. They distinguish between the “euskaldunak” (those who have the Basque language) and the “erdeldunak” (who have a non-Basque language).

In all Basque festivals, their dances will always come out. There is, for example, the Aurresku, a solemn and elegant dance where the woman does not dance but is danced for. The men enter the plaza and invite the most important women of the town to enter their rounds of dance, ending with a challenge among the most skilled dancers. The Mutildantza del Baztan is another dance exclusively for men. The Suletine Masquerade, so-called for its somewhat carnival appearance and the Ezpatadantza, symbolizes the tribute to a soldier who died in defence of his homeland. There are a large number of popular festivals that extend throughout the year.

Summer celebrations

Semana Grande, celebrated throughout the Basque Country on August 15th and for 10 days in which shows, parties and dances abound; or the massive festival of the “Virgen Blanca” (Vitoria) with its festivals and bullfights; the noisy “Día de San Sebastián” and its tambourines; or the theme “Aste Nagusia” (Bilbao) and its big-headed dolls. In general, each region, each locality, has its own customs, with its typical dances and festivals, of which neither its origin nor its antiquity is known.

A picturesque manifestation of the Basque tradition is rural sports. The Harrijasotzailes (stone lifters), Segalaris (grass cutters) or the Aizcolaris (lumberjacks) emulate typical farmhouse tasks. The most widespread and generally more urban sports are: drifting regattas, Basque pelota, and the world-famous sokatira – tug of war/pulling the rope.

There are a huge number of festivities that take place throughout the Basque Country, and the months of July and August are the busiest. Every town and city has its own particular celebration, which is almost always dedicated to the patron saint, although at present they are more focused on other events. These festivals are the time when the entire town or city comes together to celebrate their heritage and identity.

Winter celebrations

When the coldest season of the year arrives, festivals are held in which it is remembered that the existing threshold between death and life is very small. These celebrations also underline the idea that matter can be reborn, can be resurrected. In general, winter festivals dramatize themes related to the death and resurrection of people, animals, and plants. In most of these celebrations, the protagonists are usually the youngest of the towns that are celebrating. This is the case of Basque rural carnivals and the different days on which Christmas gifts are requested or other types of requests are made.

The winter festivities begin with All Saints’ Day, on November 1st. It is a day dedicated to the deceased, in which family and friends fill the graves of their dearest people with flowers.

December 6th, the youngest of each town takes centre stage in the festival of San Nicolás. On that day, a six-year-old boy or girl dresses like a bishop and, accompanied by the rest of the children, they sing to the Saint through the streets, while they receive candies that are thrown from the balconies. At the doors of Christmas, two agricultural and livestock fairs bring together a large number of people in the towns where they take place.

On December 13th, Zumárraga hosts the Santa Lucía fair, and on December 21st is the day of Santo Tomás, whose great fair fills the streets of Bilbao, Donostia and Arrasate / Mondragón.

Christmas is announced by Olentzero, a charcoal burner who, when he was working in the mountains, received the news of the birth of Christ and went down to town to give the Good News. Thus, every December 24th, apart from spreading the arrival of Christmas, this good-natured character brings us gifts, and sometimes coal. Christmas Eve is celebrated in a special way in Labastida, in Araba. Groups of shepherds led by a “cachimorro” and covered in skins recite old couplets and perform simple dances. With the new year, come new parties.

The Gipuzkoan capital lives its big day on January 20th, with the celebration of San Sebastián’s day and its traditional tambourine. This party begins at night as January 19th becomes the 20th, at 00:00 hours, with the raising of the flag and the sounds of a drum filling the corners of the city. On the 20th at noon, the boys and girls gather dressed as drummers. The party ends at midnight on the 20th, with the lowering of the flag.

Watch and listen a Danborrada

A curious character within the winter festivities is the “cachi“, who dressed in green and yellow walks the streets of the Alava town of Oyón on January 22th.

Two important festivals take place in February. On the one hand, on January 3rd, San Blas is celebrated, in honour of the saint who cures throat diseases. According to tradition, a thin rope must be worn around the neck for nine days, in order to avoid future sore throat.

On the other hand, a day later, on January  4th, the eve of Santa Águeda, numerous choirs go through the streets of the different towns of Euskal Herria, singing the traditional song to her. To set the rhythm of the music, sticks are struck against the ground.

The most striking and colourful secular parties are the Carnivals. There are urban and modern Carnivals such as those in Tolosa and those in the cities and, on the other hand, there are those in a rural and more traditional environment, such as the Zuberoa masquerades or the Lantz Carnivals (Nafarroa). As an example of rural Carnival, there is the zagi-dantza that takes place in the Biscayan town of Markina-Xemein, on Carnival Sunday. A group of young people perform this dance, one of the most representative of the Basque Carnival. The troupe includes a bear that is dedicated to scaring children, controlled by a tamer.