Valencia, the Mediterranean city per excellence, overflows with gaiety, energy and fireworks during the celebration of its Major Festival: the Fallas From 13 to 19 March, this regional capital on the river Turia and its provincial towns celebrate in tremendous style, one of the best known and emblematic festivals of Spain, as well known as the San Fermin festival in Pamplona.
Fallas are creations of papier mache, wood and wax, which the townsfolk of Valencia build in the streets and burn on the night of the feast of St. Joseph. These figures, called "ninots" by the Valencians, allude to events and personalities of the day. The ninots, half satirical, half symbolical, are created in a style somewhere between comic strips and Walt Disney cartoons.
The figures, which represents a whole year's work for hundreds of people, are burnt on the night of 19 March in towering flames, and each bonfire is a temple devoted to this colossal festival of fire.
For one week the Valencians and their visitors are both spectators and participants in a spectacle which goes beyond the walls of the great theatre which this city becomes. The tourist influx and the international projection of the Fallas grows every year.
When man discovered fire he stood marvelling before such a strange phenomenon. From that time he has used fire to overcome the darkness of the night, to cook food, to defend himself from enemies, and even as a means of communication. There are many human rituals in which the principal protagonist is fire. In Spain, on the night of St. Joseph, St. John and St. Anthony, honour is rendered to those saints by burning of huge bonfires.
The origin of the Valencian Fallas there are various theories which have tried to place these popular festival in time. This is not a simple matter as there is hardly any documentary evidence. The closest theories to reality, however, are: Vicente Salvador's theory, that of Sol and the theory of the "Ninot" in the middle of Lent. The first two agree that the celebration of the Fallas began in the Middle Ages. Vicente Salvador considers that the origin of the Fallas could have happened at the time of the medieval guilds. On the night of St. Joseph the carpenters' guild used to light a bonfire in honour of the saint. In it they burnt the standing pole on which they had kept their lamp during the winter - the estai - and the sweepings from the workshop. Which the passage of time, however, matting and various old pieces of junk were added. The custom of burning an effigy in the blaze is somewhat subsequent. The feuds between the different workshops provoked the creation of grotesque figures which represented rivals, for the purpose of making everyone laugh at them. The effigies were thrown onto the fire together with the old pieces of junk.
The second theory, that of Sol, suggest that the actual tradition of lighting bonfires in honour of the saints arose from pagan customs which Christianity made its own, as it was too difficult to prohibit or condemn them, since they were already ceremonies of great popularity.
The theory of the Ninot in the middle of Lent, the third, relates that during the 17th century, effigies tied to a stick were burnt in the market place. It would seem that the first of these represented Mahomet. This act brought together a large number of townsfolk who celebrated the burning.
The first written testimonies of the Valencian Fallas date from the middle of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. The protagonist of the Falla festival were now not only the fire and the effigies, but the entire town formed part this splendid spectacle. This aspect has confirmed Valencia's position as one of the most entertaining cities in Europe.
The Fallas are divided into seven important stages. Public enthusiasm ensures that Valencia is adorned in festival garb and everybody takes to the streets. The ceremonies which make up the whole week of the festival are: the nomination and proclamation of the Queens of the Fallas for the year, the Exaltation, the Crida, the Cavalcade of the Ninot the Offering of Flowers, the Planta and the Crema.
The Exaltation is, with the Offering of Flowers, one of the most colourful moments of the Fallas. In this ceremony, the Valencian townsfolk and the various institutions pay homage to the Falla Queens who receive their sashes and jewels of office in the Palau de la Musica. As the Attendant Courts of the Falla Queen and the Falla Princess go up to the stage, the place begins to be filled with baskets of flowers donated by Valencian and a few Spanish collectives. One of the most important figures at the Exaltation is the chairman, who represents the world of culture and makes a speech to all those present which can be of a justificatory or political nature or poetic.
The Offering of Flowers to Our Lady of the Forsaken in the ceremony for which Valencia is entirely dressed in its best and renders homage at the feet of her patron saint, offering thousands of bouquets of flowers, baskets of posies and floral shrine arrangements. During the twenty-four hours which the Offering lasts, the Virgin, fondly referred to by the Valencians as "Geperudeta", receives her tribute. On this day, the sobriquet of Valencia, city of flowers becomes reality, and the Basilica square is turned into a beautiful and colourful garden, with more than thirty tons of flowers decorating just one of the principal squares of the city.
The "Planta" is the ceremony which everyone awaits with impatience. On 15 March the papier-mâché effigies are assembled, not without a considerable struggle, in the squares and streets of Valencia. Hundreds of these Fallas invade the city, as many as there are houses to make them. On this day the creations of the "fallero artists" are displayed, the work of hundreds of specialists: carpenters, painters, sculptors, designers, etc. The effigies and ninots are admired by both the Valencians and the tourists. The Fallas show off their lively colours and enormous size, and make clear which personalities have been the focus of public opinion and attention. There are few Spanish politicians who escape from the satire of the "fallero" masters.
The Crema is the culmination of the Fallas. For some it is the saddest moment, while for others it is the high point of the festival. On the night of the feast of St. Joseph, 19th March, the Fallas are lit. The last effigies to be devoured by the flames are those Fallas that have been awarded prizes by the Genrakl Fallas Committee and those in the City Hall square. Only one "Ninot" is saved each year, from the flames by popular vote, and exhibited in the Museum of the Ninot together with those from various years which won the same privilege. Kilos and kilos of fireworks surround the monuments. At about midnight Valencia goes up in flames. The spectacle of the fire and noise, produced by more than three hundred fires spread throughout the city and the many other towns , such as Gandia, Oliva, Denia and Javia, is quite something to see.
For more information on this festival see Fallas of Valencia on Valencia City Guide.
There are very many other Festivals throughout Spain, for further details contact your local Spanish Tourism Office.