If you’re thinking of visiting Spain this spring, there’s one event you definitely don’t want to miss, and that’s the magnificent festival of Las Fallas in Valencia. Las Fallas is a celebration of ancient origin which marks the passing of winter and the dawn of a new spring – welcoming the new and sending out the old with a carnival of flames. It is one of the most colourful and dramatic spectacles in all of Spain.
Las Fallas is also known as the Falles, and takes its name from the Valencian word “falla,” which translates to “fire.” So the name of the celebration translates to “The Fires,” or “The Torches,” which is an apt description for what the fiesta involves. Each year all the neighborhoods in Valencia raise money to create ninots. Ninots are giant, whimsical sculptures, usually made of paper-mâché, cardboard, Styrofoam, papers and wax, or wood. Most of the figures are arranged in exaggerated postures—the more gravity-defying, the better. Many tower as high as multi-story buildings; their colourful, surreal aspects utterly transform the city of Valencia for the duration of the festival.
The period of Las Fallas takes place between March 15th and March 19th and during these five days countless locals take to the streets in traditional Valencian costumes, and the air reverberates to the sound of music and gunpowder and lots of partying! The massive sculptures of the fallas themselves are displayed throughout the various barrios of the city, taking up entire plazas and street corners and attracting crowds of admirers from dawn till dusk and late on into the night.
The figures portrayed can vary a good deal, but they are often satirical in nature and poke fun at the people and events of the past year. They can range from cute and playful to beautiful and elegant to grotesque and obscene. On the final night of the festival known as La Cremà, “The Burning,” the sculptures are set on fire to much joy and exuberance. In a sense, the Valencian people are figuratively setting the past year on fire – burning the events and people of the year in effigy in order to release the past.
Renewal & Rebirth
How did Las Fallas originate, and how has it evolved over time? Most people believe they started in the Middle Ages when artisans needed to clear away the detritus and debris of the harsh winter months; but pagan festivals throughout history have also commonly involved ritual bonfires, so Las Fallas most likely have their true origins in the misty, ancient times before recorded history.
Once the Catholic Church became an important force in Spain, the festival was moved to coincide with the festival of Saint Joseph, who is the patron saint of carpenters. Nowadays the holiday is a mesh of these different traditions. It is still Saint Joseph’s festival, but it also retains its original pagan character and spirit, one which marks the passage of time and which helps the city to experience renewal and rebirth.
Las Fallas came under scrutiny many times during the 20th century as various governments attempted to ban the festival (and failed). The satirical nature of the celebrations frustrated local and national governments in Spain, particularly during the time of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, under Franco the festival became rather suppressed in character, but even Franco was unable to ban them completely. Once democracy returned to Spain, the satirical displays once more returned to the fore. Today Valencians continue to demonstrate their political and social views through the burning of satirical ninots. There is also a children’s ninot parade which doesn’t include satirical overtones.
City of Light, Color & Costume
During the festival there are plenty of other diverting activities to enjoy as well. You’ll be surrounded by revelers in colourful costumes lighting fireworks and purchasing roasted chestnuts and fried snacks and trinkets from vendors around town. The city is decorated by colourful bright lights which turn the streets into a luminous wonderland by night. Shining archways of lights line the streets and transform Valencia into a scintillating dreamworld.
If you’re planning to attend the festival, you can find a full program of events online on the official Fallas website (Spanish). The program can change from year to year, so it’s a good idea to find out where the parades will take place and where the ninots will be displayed and burned. That way you won’t miss out on any of the fun. Valencia is a wonderful and dramatic place to welcome springtime and to let go of the events of the past. You’ll never forget a trip to Spain which includes the festivities of Las Fallas—and you may come home feeling renewed and energized yourself.
Photos: Brigitta Hetenyi
David Lancaster is a freelance writer and web developer and who lives and works in Valencia.