The Fallas Festival

Las Fallas (15 – 16 – 17 – 18 & 19 March)

The Fallas festivities are the expression of a unique kind of art using large wooden structures covered with painted papier-mâché. Recently, however, other materials are also coming into use.

This festival is also a satirical and ironic vision of local, provincial, national and even international problems and themes.

The Fallas criticize almost everything and everyone imaginable, although they do so with tongue in cheek. Over 370 full-scale fallas and 368 children’s fallas are mounted throughout the city, and some of these reach extravagant heights, although they do not usually exceed 20 metres.

Each falla elects their own Fallas Queen from among the Fallas maidens who form the court of honour of that particular Falla. Towards the end of the year, they present one of these lovely ladies – not necessarily their Fallas Queen – to the competition from which the judges will chose the thirteen Valencian women who will make up the court of honour of the main Fallas Queen of the entire city of Valencia. Children’s fallas follow the same process.

For many years, the Fallas Queen of Valencia was chosen by the Mayor, who was the honourary president of the Central Fallas Committee called the “Junta Central Fallera”, responsible for coordinating all of the Fallas commissions. For this reason, the election of the Queen would often correspond to women belonging to the most representative families of the city. Thus the Fallas Queen roster contained many illustrious surnames such as Franco, Suarez, Fernández de Córdoba, and others.

In 1961 this process changed when Lolita Alfonso Sánchez, an orphan from the House of Goodwill, became the Valencia Children’s Fallas Queen. This marked a new starting point for the selection of Fallas Queens among Valencians.

Today, the election of the Fallas Queens of Valencia is governed by democratic vote among the candidates being presented.

The nominees public presentation, which follows their proclamation by the Mayor in the Chamber of the City Hall, is a solemn event in which all Fallas commissions and much of Valencian society take part. The ceremony was held for many years in the “Teatro Principal” (main theatre) of the town, but today the Palau de la Música (or the Music Auditorium) has taken over as the annual venue because of its larger capacity.

Fallas is the culmination of the work and efforts of an entire year. The whole city mobilizes itself and contributes to the Fallas, which also enjoy the institutional support of the City Council. The authorities set up their own falla and help to give the festivity an exceptionally attractive air.

It is no exaggeration to say that almost every street corner has its own falla and fallas commission. During the festivities, Valencian women wear their best traditional clothes and parade through the streets in colourful pageantry under their fallas standards to the sound of regional music.

At midday, each falla stages its own sound fireworks display, harmonizing the booming sounds of rockets with the smell of gunpowder.

At night there are spectacular fireworks displays that brighten up the nighttime sky.
In the Fallas casales (places where fallas celebrators gather) there is no time for sleep. It is fiesta time for five whole days.

The flower offering to the patron saint of Valencia, Our Lady of the Forsaken, is staged on two consecutive days. Thousands and thousands of flowers are placed over a wooden structure that serves as the framework upon which her image is formed. This is located in front of the Basilica and the entire Plaza is perfumed with the fragrance of endless bouquets of flowers.

Almost 100,000 Valencians take part in the procession. And of course, every day at five o´clock in the afternoon there is an important bullfight within the framework of the March Bullfighting Fair.

On the night of the 19th, Valencians burn down their creations, saving only what is known as the “Ninot Indultat”, or the “reprieved figurine”, which becomes a museum piece. The children’s fallas are burnt at ten in the evening, with the exception of the first prize in the children’s category, which is set alight at ten thirty, and the city council children’s falla, which goes up in flames at eleven.

At twelve o’clock midnight, preceded by a grand fireworks display, the large fallas are set to the torch.

The entire city is filled with flaming fallas. At twelve thirty the first prize Falla is burnt and at one o´clock at night the Falla in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento is set alight, symbolically finishing for another whole year this semi-pagan, semi-patriotic, semi-religious fiesta that stirs the hearts of the Valencians.

On the day after the ‘night of fire’, a few marks on the asphalt is all that remains of the falla that stood so proudly the night before. On this very same day, the next fallas campaign gets under way.

The fallas fiesta was born in Valencia and quickly spread to other towns in the region, even outside the immediate area.

As a traditional Valencian festival, it is in the capital city Valencia where the Fallas command the most colour, participation and their greatest impact.

From the end of February, Valencia starts its fiestas with the so-called ‘Crida’, which is the call to action, followed by the Ninot Parade, the splendid Parade of the Kingdom, the “Song of the Kindling Wood” and the Ninot or figurine exhibition.

As for the origins of the Fallas, they seem to be connected with the pagan celebration of the spring equinox. It is said that in olden days craftsmen toiling throughout the wintertime would extend their working hours by using a light perched on a stand which they called a ‘parot’, something like a large candelabrum with various arms or wooden appendages. When spring came, they would celebrate the lengthening of the days that made their ‘parot’s superfluous by taking them out of doors and burning them in the street on the eve of St Joseph’s day. Logically, this custom was initiated by the carpenters of the city.

Today we know that since 1497 carpenters have been celebrating this Patron Saint’s day with a feast. There is a curious document still preserved from the 15th century which refers to “the day on which the joiners burn the pole.” Later on, the stand was adorned with old garments, much like a scarecrow, and was burnt in a bonfire along with odds and ends and leftovers from the workshop. After this, the stand was given a human visage intended to mock a well-known personality in the neighbourhood. Thus the Ninot, or doll-like effigy, was born. It soon became a fundamental element in the Fallas feast, no longer used on its own, but accompanied by a whole pageantry of figures.

Another important advance was made with the appearance of the “subject” or “theme” of the Falla, generally something satirical or critical, expressed in humorous verse, although perhaps bearing on historical fact or some aspect of local life. These rudimentary representations gave birth to the ‘llibret’ or explanatory book written in the Valencian vernacular. After propping the figurines on full-scale pedestals in the 18th century, the creation of the Fallas festival was almost complete.

The name of the ‘fallas’ was not originally given to the figurines or to the entire monument itself, but rather to the fire which was supposed to consume the whole construction. The scholar Carreres i Zacarés discovered a quote on the fallas dedicated to San Vicente: in 1596 one Pedro Toralba was paid the sum of 74 pounds, one shilling and 6 pence for the possible use of his grills on which he burnt “the fallas which are made on the feast day of the Glorious Saint Vicente Ferrer.”

The fallas dedicated to St Joseph quickly obtained the overall applause of the modest working neighbourhood, but was snubbed by the upper class, and the more puritanical. Thus, the journalist José Ombuena in his book on “The Fallas of Valencia” took note of a complaint made by a devout Christian. This reproof appeared in the “Newspaper of Valencia” in 1792, and included the answer given by the same periodical to a certain vexed priest called Traggia: “Sufficient reason you have as the good Christian you are to be full of sorrow when you observe our streets and plazas full of pyres and figurines all ridiculously dressed, entertaining the great majority of the populace, who on days such as these fully forget their obligations and lose much of their otherwise productive workdays.” Not many years later, in 1808, the Frenchman Alexandre de Laborde became acquainted with the Fallas of Valencia and described them in his book “Itineraire descriptif de la Espagne” in the following manner: “Every year on the 18th of March, the eve of St. Joseph’s Day, cabinetmakers and carpenters come out onto the streets, each in front of his own workshop, to build truly theatrical representations of life-size figurines, covered with the clothes of the character they wish to represent. They are built with very light wooden structures, a mask forms their faces, their clothes, headdress and adornments are of paper – quite often done with great ability. These figurines are set up on a huge pyre which is usually well hidden, and surrounded up to its full height by a thicket of mock adornments all artistically positioned.” He also mentions that fine sights could be seen: “at nightfall these figurines were set alight, and in an instant the entire representation goes up in flames. These representations are called the Fallas de San José…” The importance of the feast was described as follows: “People press thick against one another, persons of a higher position mingle with the masses; people come from miles around and forget all they may have on their minds however important their affairs may be.” It seems that fallas were adorned in those days with all kinds of erotic paraphernalia, with much symbolism using the shapes of fruits and vegetables, in addition to extending criticisms of all their neighbours and the town authorities.

Perhaps this was the reason why the Fallas were outlawed in 1851 by the Mayor of Valencia, the Baron of Santa Barbara. In 1883 the City Council stamped a tax of 30 pesetas per falla on the festivity, and that year only four fallas were set up. In 1885 the tax rose to 60 pesetas and only one falla went up in flames. In 1886 the city had no spring festivity whatsoever, after which lively protests were heard. The following year the tax was reduced to 10 pesetas and twenty-one fallas were built.

The first ‘llibret’ was written by Bernat i Baldoví in 1855.

Criticism and burlesque provocation became the keynote of the fallas as they came closer and closer to becoming artforms in the 19th century. Artistic skills began to be exercised to the full. Painters and sculptors were brought in to help. Soon afterwards an entire school of fallas artists began to burgeon, presided over by Antonio Cortina, Andrés Cabrelles and Regino Más. The fallas grew in complexity to become enormous monuments, and an entire industry was born under the auspices of the Guild of Fallas Artists.

The Fallas are a feast to which people from all walks of life can contribute. No one, even if they try, can come to Valencia during this time of year and stay on the sidelines. The catafalques are there in the street. The parades never end, whether the falleros happen to be marching to collect their prizes, offering flowers, coming to the deafening midday sound fireworks sessions, seeing fireworks at night, or listening to outdoor concerts in the streets. Food and drink are everywhere, with typical pastry stands on every corner. The noise is sometimes too much for people used to quieter quarters, but there is no doubt about it. Valencia welcomes everyone with open arms and encourages all to join in the feast.

Moses. City Hall Square 2014 Falla
October  2016
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