It is 2 p.m. March 11 in Valencia and loud booming can be heard throughout the city and into the countryside.
A massive plume of blueish smoke rises above the old town and spreads across the city. For anyone who does not know what is going on, awful ideas could fill your head: a bomb, a city fire, an air strike. But, looking around, most people seem unfazed. This is because the booming marks the beginning of the annual Valencian celebration of Las Fallas.
Las Fallas is one of the top festivals in Spain, held only in Valencia in honor of San Jose, the patron saint of carpenters. It coincides with the day honoring San Jose after when the Catholic religion incorporated older traditions taking place at this time. The roots of this festival come from the older pagan tradition of burning excess and starting fresh in a new year.
Carpenters would burn old wood, farmers would burn grain and rotting food and merchants would burn old merchandise. Gradually, people started throwing in symbols of what they wanted to let go of from the previous year, which often included humorous symbols of government and things that were happening in the world. These traditions have evolved into modern day Las Fallas (both the name of the festival and the name of the things to be burned), which has been proclaimed a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Living in Valencia during this festival may be the highlight of our stay here. We have lived here long enough now to have friends who let us know what it means to really experience Las Fallas. Some are die-hard supporters, and some get out of town because of the almost 1 million people who descend on Valencia during this time.
The actual Fallas themselves are amazing to behold. They are satirical monuments displayed all around Valencia of things that have happened during the year. Many of them tower above the buildings. Fallas are organized and built by members (known as Falleros) of the over 350 Comisiónes Falleras (Fallas commissions). Most of these comisiónes represent organizations or neighborhoods, and they raise money all year to build their Fallas.
In Puzol, I have been asked at least 30 times by children and adults for donations toward the Puzol Fallas when I am in a restaurant or walking around. Fallas usually cost between 80,000 to 200,000 euros to make, but one year, the winning Fallas cost about 900,000 euros.
The Ayuntamiento de Valencia (Valencia Local Council) also builds the largest Fallas in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, which is funded by taxpayers. The last night of Las Fallas (La Crema), these expensive and beautiful works of art are set ablaze, turning the city into a giant inferno. It is very emotional, and many people cry, as they watch their hard work, money and the year behind them all come to a blazing end.
Each Fallas must be erected in the streets of Valencia by what is called “Planta,” which always takes place March 15. You realize just how other-worldly this experience will be as you witness trucks bringing in pieces of a Fallas in to be erected. Sometimes, it takes more than four trucks to bring in one Fallas.
Beside each Fallas, its Commission Fallera sets up a private party with libations and paella for their Falleros, family and friends. These parties rage all week and into the early morning hours. Some local Valencians laugh that if a Fallas is not as good as others, you know that the commission has spent all the money collected on the party, rather than the Fallas.
Valencians take their festivals seriously, so they are a yearlong project. After Las Fallas is over, and everyone sleeps and recovers on March 20, the Falleros immediately start planning for the next year’s Las Fallas.
I am writing several Las Fallas blog posts on all that we experience as observers and participants in this amazing festival and display of Valencian culture and history