Why Las Fallas Are Much More Than Giant Sculptures
Today, I am going to do things a little bit differently.
Instead of talking “only superficially” about the event which takes place between the 15th and the 19th of March every year in the Spanish city of Valencia, (like I did regarding the Brazilian carnival), I am going to dig deeper and tell you why “Las Fallas” are one of the best metaphors for our human nature.
The history and background
The origins of this celebration are quite difficult to trace back.
Some say that it dates back to even before the Romans’ times, where people would set big bonfires in the eve of the equinox and solstice to bring good luck.
Such tradition was then adapted by the Romans as a celebration to their Pagan gods and later by the Christians, choosing the Saint Joseph as a day to celebrate it (probably to mark the beginning of Spring).
Another explanation dates back probably to the XVIII century, where local carpenters used burn broken artifacts along with wooden planks – which were used to hang their candles during the winter months, so that they could they could perform their work whenever there was no natural light – when they no longer needed them.
According to Wikipedia, “Over time, and with the intervention of the Church, the date of the burning of these parots was made to coincide with the celebration of the festival of Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.
But what was a simple “religious” celebration, quickly evolved into dolls that parodied the actions and behavior of some people from different neighborhoods across the city.
Later, it gained a real critical and ironic tone, where people started satirizing certain social behaviors, especially coming from society’s upper classes.
Naturally, and how it usually happens throughout history, such movement grew and it quickly began being repressed by the government and political forces.
That led to the rise of some resistance movements, having as its epitome the magazine “La Traca”, which after a while started nominating the best Fallas. As a natural consequence, neighborhoods began competing with one another, which resulted in more artistic and more beautiful Fallas – having always this social critical aspect in the background.
Until the beginning of the XX century came, and the town hall finally recognized the event and began giving prizes to the best Fallas. Therefore, what was before a clandestine event, had now the proper organization, structure and support to grow until our current times, where more than 700 Fallas are built and burnt every year.
But much more than a party celebrated by locals, this event is a legacy and a tradition of many years, symbolizing not only the power of the people but also the idea of burying everything which is negative in our lives – to then start all over again.
It is not a coincidence that Las Fallas have become an intangible Heritage of Humanity recognized by UNESCO.
What is worth seeing
There are many events taking place and many things to see during the Fallas, but I will stick to the most relevant ones:
Of the six events I will talk about, this was the only one I did not attend (thank God). Don’t ask me why, but the Valencianos have a real passion for powder and for blowing up things.
So imagine that, after enjoying the party the night before, you are suddenly waken up at 08:00 am by hundreds, eventually thousands of fire crackers thrown outside.
Fortunately, I was staying at a friend’s place 30km away from Valencia, so I didn’t need to start the day already with a big headache.
The Flower Offering
If blowing up things is not your main hobby (well, unless you are a local or you have mental problems, it shouldn’t be), then you don’t want to skip this event, which is quite the opposite of the rest of Las Fallas.
During two days, exactly the 17th and 18th of March, thousands of Falleros, dressed on their traditional costumes, head to the Plaza de la Virgen, where they fill the Virgen de los Desamparados (a 15 meter wooden structure), patron saint of Valencia, with bouquets of flowers.
With such an idyllic setting and a marching band playing the entire time, it is the perfect opportunity to take a break from all the “noise pollution” you hear everywhere else.
So imagine a typical football 5 field, made of concrete and surrounded by “protection walls” (it reminds us La Bombonera, the epic Boca Juniors stadium), where people set a tremendous amount of all sorts of pyrotechnic devices, which will then explode as loud as you could possibly imagine.
Well, sometimes reality surpasses fiction and you can actually see such demonstration from the 1st until the 19th of March in the Plaza del Ayuntamento, everyday at 02:00 pm sharp.
I’m far from being a fan of gunpowder and fireworks but I tell you one thing: at least once in your life you have to attend this “gunpowder concert”, whose apotheosis (called literally “earthquake”) and level of sound can reach 120dB.
Fireworks (Castillo) and the Gran Nit del Foc
As I said before, I have never really been a big fan of fireworks. Sure, they mark special events and they don’t offend anyone while looking at them. However, I’ve always seen them as a passive, even boring event. Until coming to Valencia.
Yes, the commitment and dedication to the cause of pyrotechnics is something I had not really seen anywhere else in the world. And therefore the result is also something unique, a spectacle of color, sound and light which you don’t want to miss.
The fireworks take place along Paseo de la Alameda every evening at 00:00, whereas the Gran Nit del Foc starts at 01:30 am, already on the 19th of March. If you can only attend one day of fireworks, make sure you do it on this one, as it is really truly magnificent.
Pretty obvious why I left these to the end (or almost, since I will still talk about La Cremá afterwards, where all the Fallas are burnt): after all, they represent the whole festivity and how everything started.
Before coming to Valencia, I had slightly heard about these big wooden figures, but I had never realized how grandiose, beautiful and detailed they actually were. There are more than 700 Fallas spread throughout the city but, if you want to see the real art, then you need to check the ones of the Sección Especial (special section).
These are built with a main theme – it can be an epoch, a set of musicals or BD characters – on its core, whose figures, called ninots, can reach more than 10 meters and occupy the central space (in a general way, these ones are more artistic and less “satirical”).
On the bottom, and around the main sculptures, there are usually smaller figures depicting satirical takes on public figures and today’s current affairs (not only in Spain but also around the globe).
The Plantà, taking place on the night of the 15th, is where all the monuments are set up, so that they are totally ready for everyone to see on the morning of the16th.
All good things come to an end, right? Well in las Fallas that end comes abruptly, like a tsunami that sweeps the whole territory and leaves no trace behind it.
So starting at around 10:00 pm on the last day of Las Fallas, the 19th of March, first the children’s sculptures are burnt, giving then the way to the bigger ones. Between 11:00 pm and 12:00 am, the ones of the Sección Especial are set on the fire, culminating on the winning Falla being burnt exactly at 00:30.
But the climax comes at 01:00 am, where the last Falla in Plaza del Ayuntamento goes down. But don’t think that this event will be just like the others: no, there will still be time for the most breathtaking, powerful mascletá of the whole Fallas, whose majestic finale will end up with the giant sculpture being set on fire.
The party itself
Having been in such Spanish parties as the carnivals of Badajoz and Cadiz, Feria of Seville and Saint Fermin in Pamplona, my expectations were high regarding this huge event in Valencia. After all, I had been hearing about Las Fallas since I had set foot the first time in this country, more than fifteen years ago.
And what usually happens when you have high expectations? Yes, you’ve guessed it: you get disappointed. But let me tell you why in order that you don’t call me a “hater”.
I arrived in Valencia on Saturday 16th, as I really wanted to enjoy the first real day of las Fallas. The first stop around 11:00 pm was the Pont d’Aragó, where we could have a privileged view over the first Castillo (fireworks) which would start at 00:00.
But before, I noticed a pattern which unfortunately would only get worse during the next days: and that was people bursting firecrackers, everywhere, at any time. At first, you may find it cool. But after having heard it 2000 times, you start going nuts.
But regarding the “official and organized” fireworks, I can only say positive things about it, as it was a powerful show of sound and color. After it finished, we ended up in a square that had a live DJ and plenty of music.
Sounded promising, except for the fact that most people were over 40 and that the DJ was playing “too alternative” music, which honestly I don’t like for dancing. So we decided to head home around 03:00 am.
On Sunday, since the night would be more relaxing, we took the opportunity during the day to see the biggest Fallas. However, this is where we actually had more fun, as there were a couple of marching and street bands passing by, animating everyone with their contagious energy.
Still, whenever there was no band playing, the rest of the city and streets were indeed quite calm. We ended up having dinner with some friends, going home afterward.
And then Monday came. Since it would be a holiday on the next day and people also wanted to enjoy the last night with their Fallas “intact”, this would supposedly be the climax of the whole festivity.
So first we had some dinner outside with some friends where, of course, people did not stop bursting firecrackers on the streets every five seconds (hell, how annoying that was). Around midnight, we started heading to the Pont d’Aragó, to watch the best and most expected Gran Nit de la Foc.
Needless to say that on our way to there, people, especially youngsters, were bursting firecrackers everywhere – throwing them at girls just to scare them, as a typical teenager joke – with the police intervening a lot of times.
Regarding the Castillo, which started at 01:30 am, it was breathtaking, a show which was probably the best I have ever seen in my life in terms of fireworks. Concerning the after party itself, we still tried to find a place to have fun but first, the squares with DJs would close at 03:00 am, and then the clubs were filled with teenagers.
So we decided to head home, with this impression that the Fallas are only worth for the sculptures and for the organized fireworks, whereas the party itself is just a huge and loud waste of time.
First I want to talk about Las Fallas from a “superficial perspective”.
Starting with the negative, I strongly discourage you to come here if your idea is to have some good old party, where such things as cool atmosphere, party music, and nice ladies are what you are looking for.
No, all you will ever have is a lot of noise pollution and teenagers bursting firecrackers every five seconds, so I just recommend you to go somewhere else in Spain (for instance, the carnival of Cadiz, San Fermin in Pamplona or the Feria of Malaga), where you will have much more fun.
However, if your idea is to see some of the most beautiful wooden sculptures and breathtaking fireworks you will ever come across in your life, then do not think even a second: Valencia – during las Fallas – is the place to be.
Rarely you find a city with so much beauty spread all over the city, to the delight of all its citizens and the thousands of people who visit Valencia during this period.
But as I said in the beginning, las Fallas is much more than wooden sculptures and fireworks. In such times consumed by technology and by an overdose of attention (better say distraction) sources, where people are drawing more and more away from traditional values, the Fallas remind us how we should always look back and honor our past.
If we are here, that’s because there were generations before us who fought to make us live (literally), passing everything they knew to the next who were to come. So before anything, the Fallas are a legacy.
Second, this event is also a great example of work ethic and responsibility. Just think about it: people are working one year almost uninterruptedly to build such amazing monuments, which will then be destroyed. How’s that to put things into perspective?
Surely throughout all these years, there may have been many people thinking “Hey, why the hell we keep doing this?! All these sculptures will be burnt anyway, so why even care about it?”
But this is where we realize the immense power of integrity and ethics, which will always overcome the natural laziness and detachment our human nature is so prone to.
In addition, while most people just want quick results, without putting any effort, this event is a great example of how we simply need the time to build anything worthwhile – and that, ultimately, what matters is the process and to enjoy the art of work, not necessarily the end result.
Therefore, much more important than owning something, it is to have the know-how for building it. Because when you are left with nothing, if you still have the skills, you will always be able to make your way to the top again.
Contrary to what happens to people who only care about the outcome, who will never be able to recover if they suddenly lose everything they have (e.g.: lottery winners).
Moreover, it comes a crucial step which most people will never be ready to face in their lifetime: and that’s to recover and start all over again. The Fallas tell us that sometimes we just need to demolish the whole building so that we can build a completely new one from scratch.
It is the idea of renewal and prosperity. It is to dig our faults, our mistakes, our sins, our anger, and our hatred and have a new beginning, even when that is the last thing we want to do. Because we are (lazy) animals of habits, we tend to cling to what we have right now and to what is certain.
And this leads to the last point, which is exactly the value we give to material things, and how we let them control most of our life. If you take a deep look at your life, is that new car or that new iPhone really that important? Or are the relationships, your set of values and beliefs what really matters?
Well, for most people it is the former, and so they somehow become slaves of their own material goods. So they end up living and working towards owning a certain number of things so that they can feel good with themselves and show other people “how well they are in life”.
But in the end what remains is our memories, the people we meet and get along with, and the experiences we have. Sure, money is essential, and without it will you not be able to live, just survive.
However, there is a huge difference between living well and living to impress others, where people just hold onto their possessions as if nothing else mattered.
In such materialistic times, the Fallas teach us a deep lesson about what is really important. While the rest of the world is too worried thinking about their daily problems, the Valencianos and Las Fallas (at least during these four days, before everything returns to “normal”) show us what it is to have a bigger purpose.
That much more important than owning something is to have the know-how. And that much more important than being stuck in the past, it is to look forward and overcome it.
Because when all the Fallas are turned to ashes and everyone goes home feeling nostalgic, even sad, they know on the other hand that it was and it will never be about the huge wooden sculptures:
It’s all about celebrating life and keeping the tradition alive.