Valencia’s Fallas is said to be the biggest celebration in Spain. It has art, music, pageantry, politics, religion, fireworks, and fires. From an expat’s point of view there are also contradictions. That’s what makes it a human endeavor.
To wrap my head around Fallas I have to look back to the grand community celebrations of my youth. In Seattle the biggest celebration was Seafair. It was an all stops pulled out citywide party!
Seattle’s neighborhoods built floats, crowned royalty, participated in parades, had backyard feasts, and watched the hydroplane races. At night after the races were over we walked down to Lake Washington’s Andrew’s Bay and watched fireworks.
Fallas is a little like that. Neighborhoods build impressive monuments instead of floats. Instead of watching boat races people watch polystyrene monuments go up in flames. The neighborhood parties feel familiar. Fireworks are a constant instead of a grand finale. That’s where the similarities end.
We have been told Fallas was started in the Middle Ages. Artisans and carpenters burned items that were no longer useful to prepare for a new season. At some point that evolved into building monuments to express the outrage politicians inspired. Setting the monuments on fire was a way of saying, “We’d rather burn something big, beautiful, and expensive than pay you another cent in taxes.” That’s a sentiment I can get behind.
Getting this outrage past censors during the Franco era meant being slyly creative and using common archetypes. Politicians who fit neatly into stereotypes are still fair game. It’s a celebrity roast made out of polystyrene. The burns aren’t punchlines. They are incendiary torches and kerosene.
There is a religious component to Fallas as well. It’s where unity is built. In addition to building monuments to burn, a Flower Virgin is created. Thousands of celebrants in traditional regalia make their way to Valencia’s Plaza de la Virgen. They are accompanied by hundreds of marching bands. In the plaza the Flower Virgin is built one bouquet at a time. She is several stories high and magnificent. The Virgin doesn’t get burned.
The contradictions? This year’s Fallas featured monuments addressing the environmental crisis. Seeing them go up in big plumes of black smoke was jarring. Donna hit the internet while they were still burning. Torching polystyrene is not environmentally friendly. Thinking about 2021’s close to 800 burning Fallas monuments had us contemplating environmental impacts very seriously.
Of course Seattle’s hydroplanes and the beloved Blue Angels’ airborne maneuvers are hardly environmentally friendly either. We gasp and point with glee. Then we write it off as a once in a year event…a drop in the bucket. High horses are only great if we see things more clearly from our perch. Environmental concerns require all of us to rethink our habits and rituals.
Fallas is usually held in March to celebrate the coming of Spring. Covid pushed it to September this year. Valencia deserves a lot of credit for demonstrating how a massive citywide celebration can observe covid protocols. Streets were closed to automobile traffic. Barricades and close monitoring kept plazas from being overwhelmed by celebrants. Masks were worn and the Civil Guard was quick to remind those whose masks had slipped. None of this felt forced. It was a point of civic pride.
The question remains, “Will we return in March 2022 to experience Fallas again?” My thinking is to see if there is a way to experience Fallas in a smaller way. I enjoyed the Seafair celebrations of my youth. Hydroplane fever was a given, but watching family members and friends participate in Seafair events developed civic pride. Backyard BBQ’s, potlucks, and beach parties were where community bonds were formed. Part of me is saying, “Go small, or stay home.”