It may have the feel of a full-on Medierranean bachanale, but Las Fallas, Valencia’s big fiesta leading up to and through St. Joseph’s Day, has structure, tradition and intense competition underpinning this colorful Spanish shin-dig.
St. Joseph is the patron saint of carpenters. This Spanish street party was originally the local workmen’s rite of spring. Each year they would burn the extra wood they no longer needed for their stoves and the lamp-posts they used for light in the winter. It would all go up in one big bonfire, and the ritual grew into a more elaborate symbol of cleansing—getting ready for a new season. Out with the bad! In with the good! Now, the festival involves burning the “fallas” after which it is named, after four full days of color, light and sound.
Las fallas are the displays that adorn this entire seaside city. There are hundreds of them, each organized by a different committee from a particular neighborhood or street. Fallas involve “ninots”, which are the figures themselves, and then bits of furniture, food, flowers and other props. All of them are a bit fantastical, some satirical, and some more than a bit baudy.
The papier- mache and wood fallas used to just appear all over town one magical day after being assembled over the course of the year in warehouses. Over time, however, the fallas have become so large—50, 60, 70 feet—that they need to be put together in pieces over a period of time and often with the help of cranes. Only the winning falla each year is spared the flames at the finale. The others burn.
One of the young falleras, Andrea Portillo, told Fox News, “It’s very sad when we burn it. It’s really sad, because we know the project, how it is, like five months or earlier even, so we know how it’s going to be, and we see it built up, and then we only get to enjoy it for four days. So it’s very sad, but we start to think of the next year and that’s it.”
But Jose Jimenez, president of one of the falla committees said, “It’s not sad, no, it’s a custom.
We start thinking of the next year and by March 20th we are already planning our next falla. Sad for the burning—no. You only get sad here when you have a monument you think is really nice and you don’t get the prize you want!”
The committees that organize the fallas consist of falleros and falleras who oversee the process of building these monuments and they raise the funds. Some of these sculptures cost $350,000 to create.
Artists are brought in from all over Spain to make them.
The falleros and falleras and their children (the infantiles) parade around town in traditional dress all weekend. For the girls—it’s big, dramatic skirts and elaborate up-do hairstyles set off with glittering earrings. The men wear very artistic-looking smock-like jackets. Of course there is always a Queen of the fiesta.
All of this set against a dazzling back drop of street lights that give a kaleidoscope effect to the city. Individual streets compete for prizes for best lights. And the switching on and off of the lights can also be choreographed together with music.
A coordinated cacophony of gunpowder (500 pounds worth) gets burnt through in one go each afternoon. That is called the “mascleta” and then elaborate fireworks light up the night skies, after midnight.
The streets heave round the clock with celebration. In tough economic times, there is the question of whether or not all this extravagance is worth it. But clearly the party brings cash to the city.
And it certainly brings a whole lot of cheer.