It started as a simple homage to Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.
Reaching five stories high, the fallas, located on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, as seen from the roof of Valencia's city hall. The fallas in this location is always the last of the 750 sculptures to burn during la crema March 19. — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies
In a tradition believed to date back to the late Middle Ages, builders in Valencia, Spain would save their scraps of wood to burn in celebration of spring. The burning was symbolic – a chance to destroy the memory or thought of anything bad that had happened in the past year, clearing the way for a fresh start. The timing of this tradition coincided with the Catholic feast day of St. Joseph, saint of carpenters - March 19.
Being craftsmen, the carpenters would often fashion whimsical sculptures - called fallas - of their scraps, sometimes carving a political commentary or a humorous tableau from their wood. Soon, entire neighborhoods worked together to create their fallas; a friendly competition began to grow as they worked to create taller, bigger, and more spectacular sculptures. Street parties were held, and on the stroke of midnight on St. Joseph's Day, the fallas were lit on fire.
Today, Las Fallas
is one of Spain's most beloved traditions, and includes a myriad of events celebrating Valencian culture. More than 750 fallas
are built in neighborhoods throughout Valencia, creating a short-term, fanciful exhibit of artistry, political commentary, and humor. Many reach over two stories tall, with the city's signature fallas
for each celebration in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento reaching five stories high. Special fallas
for children are also created, smaller in stature but as fanciful as the others. Many fallas reach heights of 2-3 stories. — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies
The core of Las Fallas spans five days and nights - March 15 through 19, although the festival itself truly starts on March 1, with the first mascletà, an intricate, coordinated symphony of firecrackers set off at 2:00 p.m. in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento - essentially the heart of Valencia's political and business district. The scene is repeated at the same time through the 19th, and as each day passes, the mascletà grows in volume, with the decibel level reaching 130 decibels by the final day.
The sculptures themselves are erected quickly -on the 15th of March - and must be ready by dawn on the 16th. Starting on the 15th, each day of festival begins at 8:00 am with La Despertà, or, the 'wake-up call'. Groups of men with trumpets, drums and other instruments march down their neighborhood streets; their lively music is accented with the BOOM of large firecrackers being thrown by others in their party. Also from the 15th through the 19th, a midnight fireworks display takes place on the Paseo de la Alameda, throwing colorful light onto both the Colonial quarter of the city as well as the architecturally spectacular area known as the City of Arts and Sciences.
For two days of the festival, the streets of Valencia are rich with color as members of each neighborhood parade to the plaza in front of the ancient basilica. Dressed in traditional Valencian costumes and escorted by musicians, thousands of Valencians walk from their neighborhoods to the basilica with offerings of flowers; the seemingly haphazard selection of bouquets is actually artfully planned, as the blooms combine to create an intricate pattern on the robe of a huge statue of the Virgin Mary.
Flowers combine to create an intricate design on the mantle of the Virgin Mary, which stands in the plaza in front of the ancient basilica. — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker DaviesThe fanciful design on the mantle of the Virgin Mary takes shape. — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies
Throughout the five days of the festival, the city is awash in color and tradition, from huge pans of paella being cooked up on street corners to specialty drinks and pumpkin fritters (dipped in hot chocolate) being served from street vendors.
Finally, on the evening of the 19th comes La Crema
, or the burning. At 10 p.m, the children's sculptures are lit on fire - often resulting in a sobbing group of festival princesses. At 11 p.m., every fallas
with the exception of that in the city's main plaza burns; that fallas
- the largest of all 750, burns at midnight.On the final night, during la cremá, all the sculptures are burned at midnight. — Photo courtesy of Turis Valencia
Valencia lies on the coast of Spain, about equidistant from centrally located Madrid
, in Spain's northeast. In a country known for its festivals and tradition, Las Fallas burns into the memory - and the hearts - of those who experience it.
Belleas del Foc in regional folkloric dress participating in Fallas. — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies