They’re usually held on the local saint’s day ( patrón or patrona), appropriately marked in red on Spanish calendars, when an effigy of the saint is paraded around the town in a procession. Village festivals often include a pilgrimage ( romería) to a local shrine on horseback and in horse-drawn wagons, where a grand celebration is held. Foreigners are usually welcome to join in, although you may need an invitation to take part in some religious festivals.
The first national celebration of the year is Martes de Carnaval (Spain’s Mardi Gras), held in February and best experienced in Cadiz or Tenerife. Holy Week ( Semana Santa) is a major tourist attraction in many cities and towns, particularly in Seville and the rest of Andalusia.
The main attractions are huge religious processions with ornate floats depicting scenes from the Passion and masked men decked out in ghostly costumes with pointed hats (imitated by the Ku Klux Klan in the US). Other major festivals include Corpus Christi in May or June; the feast day of Spain’s patron saint, Santiago, on 25th July; and the Assumption of the Virgin ( la Asunción) on 15th August. There are also numerous local fiestas for harvests, deliverance from the Moors, safe return from the sea, plus a variety of other obscure occasions (the Spanish use any excuse to have a party!).
Essential ingredients for a fiesta include costumes, processions, music, dancing and feasting. Processions often include huge papier-mâché statues called giants or bigheads ( gigantones or cabezudos), which take many months to create and may be ritually burnt during the festival (the most famous is the fallas fiesta held in Valencia in March). The largest festivals include bullfights, flamenco, funfairs, circuses, fireworks, plays, concerts, music recitals and competitions. In Extremadura, the Basque Country and Navarre, summer fiestas often feature loose bulls stampeding through the streets ( el encierro).
The most famous is the running of the bulls in Pamplona during the Fiesta de San Fermín (although there are many others), when the slow of foot and foolhardy (usually foreigners) are often injured or even occasionally killed. A vaquilla is the running of bulls, cows or calves through the streets of a town and includes the opportunity to ‘fight’ the animals. Another tradition, called the toro del aguardiente, is to set a table with a bottle of brandy and glasses in the middle of a bullring; those wishing to enjoy a drink must risk being tossed by a small bull (some people will do anything for a free drink!).
There’s rarely any violence or serious crime at Spanish festivals and fiestas, which are a great occasion for all the family (children often stay up all night), and any drunkenness or hooliganism is likely to be among foreigners. Pickpockets and bag snatchers are, however, fairly common at major festivals, which tend to attract thieves in droves. Dates for most festivals are fluid and when they fall on a Tuesday or Thursday the day is usually ‘bridged’ with the preceding or following weekend to create a four-day holiday. Check exact dates with TurEspaña and local tourist offices in Spain. TurEspaña publish a number of brochures about festivals and fiestas, including Celebrating in Spain and Festivals of Special Interest to Tourists.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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