If there’s one thing that you can say about the Catalans is that they love to party. Every town has its own Festa Major, when people parade through the streets, organise concerts, drink and eat and generally have a wonderful time. The festivals are family-oriented by day and more hedonistic by night, but as everybody likes to have fun, almost any public holiday can become an excuse for something much more elaborate.
Street parades are typical of many festivals, and often include floats on the back of lorries and or a list of typical characters on foot. Every parade will have gegants, which are large figures of about three metres high with a person inside, capgrossos, quite literally fatheads, and trabucaires, groups of men who shoot 18th century blunderbusses into the air making a lot of noise and leaving a strong smell of gunpowder. Diables dress up as drum-playing devils by day and run through the streets with fireworks in their hands at night for the correfoc, the running fire.
People who like getting involved in processions seem to take it up as a full-time hobby, so any small-town Festa Major will be visited by groups from other towns making it much more spectacular than the town’s population might lead you to believe. There will also be sardanas, the traditional Catalan circle dance, accompanied by a cobla, or small orchestra, in the evening, and if you’re really lucky a concurs de castellers might be organised. These are competitions in which casteller groups build human castles that rise to a height of ten metres and are breathtakingly spectacular.
Below is a list of the public holidays and festivals celebrated across the whole of Catalonia. In the town guides, I have included more specific information about the must-see events in each location. If you want to know what’s going on near you at any time of the year, visit www.festes.org, which lists all the festivals for the coming month. Although it’s in Catalan, you’ll get the places and dates, and you’re sure to have a great time.
Jan 1st – New Year’s Day is a much-needed public holiday after the festivities of the night before. New Year’s Eve is generally spent among family and friends, and bars and restaurants often close at 10pm and open again at 1am, when everybody hits the streets again to celebrate the New Year. If you get invited to someone’s home, you’ll be expected to ‘menjar el raïm’, eat the grapes, along with everyone else. This consists of eating a grape on each chime of the bells at 12 o’clock, which is much more difficult than it sounds. Your mouth ends up full of pips and skin, which you have to wash down with a glass of cava. The singing and drunkenness doesn’t start until much later.
Jan 6th – On the evening of the fifth, the Three Kings, Els Reis, arrive and there is an amazing procession through most towns with gegants, capgrossos and diables and fantastically decorated floats sponsored by local companies and community groups. The stars of the show, though, are the Kings themselves, Gaspar, Melcior, and Baltasar, who are paraded through the streets on massive thrones. Everybody throws sweets to the children assembled at the side of the street, so be sure to take a plastic bag and be prepared to scramble for them. For the following day, Festa de Reis itself, children leave shoes out on the balcony or in the backyard overnight, and wake up to find them full of presents.
Carnaval or Carnestoltes – This is the holiday we know as Shrove Tuesday, but here it’s the last moment of debauchery before fasting and religious obedience during Lent. It generally involves a lot of partying as semi-clad ladies parade through the streets, while in Sitges, Catalonia’s most famous parade, you get to feast your eyes on extraordinarily convincing and provocative transvestites. It’s also a time to eat bunyols, which are kind of misshapen aniseed-flavoured doughnut. In comparison, our Pancake Day is a load of crepes.
Setmana Santa or Pasqua – Good Friday and Easter Monday are both public holidays, but beginning a week earlier on Palm Sunday, when children walk through the street carrying gigantic dried palm leaves, the whole week is an excuse for processions and religious music. Although Easter Sunday is quite a solemn affair, when tortured effigies of Christ are paraded through the streets, Easter in Catalonia does contain some lighter moments. Children traditionally receive a mona from their godparent in the morning. This is a large ornate chocolate model that makes the average British Easter egg look a little pathetic. Also be sure not to miss l’ou com balla, the dancing egg, which is an egg that is balanced on the fountain in the centre of the cloister of the local cathedral dancing its symbolic dance throughout the whole of Easter week.
April 23rd – El Dia de Sant Jordi, Saint George’s Day, is also known as the Day of the Book and the Rose. Sant Jordi has been the patron saint of Catalonia since medieval times, and although his dragon-slaying legend is much the same as ours, his feast day is something quite special here. The streets are full of people selling roses and stalls piled high with books, which men buy for women and women buy for men respectively. As both Shakespeare and Cervantes died on April 23rd, the medieval poetry festival, the Jocs Florals was moved to this day, so everybody from schoolchildren to professional poets writes a special celebratory verse. Aware that the Catalans were setting an example for the world, UNESCO declared April 23rd International Day of the Book in 1995.
May 1st – Labour Day is a public holiday often accompanied Trades Union processions.
June 23rd – La Verbena de Sant Joan, Midsummer’s Eve, is Catalonia’s craziest festival. There are firework displays, correfocs and street parties all over the Principality. Be prepared to drink enormous quantities of cava and have breakfast before you go to bed.
August 15th – L’Assumpció a religious public holiday.
September 11th – La Diada is Catalonia’s National Day is celebrated to remember the day that after a long siege Barcelona fell to the Castilian troops and Catalonia lost all its legal, political, linguistic and cultural rights. Normally, La Senyera, the Catalan Flag, is flown from balconies all over the Principality. Throughout years of repression under Franco and more recently, when Aznar was president of Spain, multitudinous demonstrations were organised. However, given Zapatero’s positive attitude towards the Catalans, since the Socialist government came to power in 2004, the day has been strangely quiet. As there’s nothing to demonstrate about, celebrations are limited to laying a wreath at the statue of Rafael Casanovas, the hero of the siege of Barcelona.
October 12th – La Festa de la Hispanitat, the Festival of Spanishness, is just an excuse to have a day off work.
November 1st – Tots Sants, All Saints’ Day, is traditionally when people visit cemeteries to remember their deceased loved ones. It also coincides with the Castanyada when roast chestnuts are eaten. For those with a sweet tooth, panallets are a must at this time of the year. These small marzipan balls come in a variety of flavours – my favourites are the coconut-flavoured ones or the ones covered in pine nuts.
December 6th – Dia de la Constitució, the Day of the Constitution, is a public holiday remembering the day when Spain’s democratic constitution was drawn up after the death of Franco.
December 8th – La Immaculada is another religious public holiday. Most people take advantage of the ‘pont’ or bridge idea, which reasons that when there is only one day between two day’s off work, whether they be a weekend or a public holiday, it’s not worth going to work. On a good year when the 6th is a Tuesday and the 8th is a Thursday, you get a wonderful week’s holiday, which means you can get all your shopping done just in time for Christmas.
Christmas – Nadal, Christmas Day, and Sant Esteve, Boxing Day, are both public holidays, but Christmas is quite a low-key affair, generally celebrated with the family. Most towns put on Nativity Plays or erect Nativity Scenes, sometimes with live figures. Keep an eye out for, El Caganer, who crouches at the back of the stable doing what most of us do in the private of our own toilet. The traditional Caganer is a figurine wearing Catalan national dress with the products of his bowel movements graphically located underneath his bottom, but Caganers are also collectors’ items and often depict famous people. He is generally regarded as a peasant symbol fertilising the earth but perhaps he’s just eaten too much turró, the delicious almond-flavoured sweet, so typical of the Christmas period.