Barcelona is an ancient city and still observes many of the traditions from long ago. The city can be dated back to the Neolithic times and was founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC. The colony only had about 1,ooo citizens and was defended by a wall, which there are remnants that can still be seen in the oldest Barrios. Barcelona was a major port for the Mediterranean and still is. It was under Muslim rule for hundreds of years and then was followed by the Christians being in control. Interestingly enough, the medieval times brought success to Barcelona when it became the economic and political center of the Western Mediterranean. The Gothic Quarter, which is where I’m staying, still has many sites dating back to the 13th century. Then the 15th to the 18th centuries brought a time of decline and ended when the city was taken by the Bourbon troops, who suppressed the rights of Catalonia. The mid-19th century brought a revival to this ancient city through the success of its textile industry.
Looking at the political unrest that is happening today, many could say that proud and outspoken Catalonia is still fighting for its independence. As an example of the Catalan spirit, ALL of the public signs are in the Catalan language and not in Spanish. Since Catalonia is partly in Spain and the rest is in France, the Catalan language is a sweet combination of Spanish and French. Hey, now that I’m getting my Spanish down, I realize now how important learning at least the basics of that language, could have really helped me. Even the sign outside of Starbucks is in Catalan.
There are demonstrations happening here all the time. There seem to be two types: one for Catalan to leave Spain and the other to free the political prisoners who have recently been arrested. The police are politely standing by in case there is any problem. But they all seem to be demonstrating in a civil type of a style. Here is a picture of one right down the street from me.
The Tribal Side
Living here for 2 months has made me realize how important community or maintaining the tribe is here in Barcelona. The Barrios, or neighborhoods, were originally little villages that eventually grew together. Even though they are all now part of the metropolis of Barcelona, they absolutely maintain the identity of their barrio. Neighborhood fiestas are the way that people get together and they do it on a very regular basis. There seems to be a fiesta every week and sometimes several in a week, especially during the summer.
So, what actually is a fiesta? For an example, the family I’m staying with in my Airbnb has a 10-year old daughter whose class just graduated from a school year. The parents and children got together at noon on a Sunday next to the famous Santa Caterina Mercado. They set up many tables, brought food to share, cervezas were flowing plentifully and of course, the music. There is always a band with people dancing in the streets. Always. I stayed for a couple of hours, but they didn’t return from that fiesta until 11 at night. Their fiestas always seem to last almost 12 hours and I’m sure some last for days. What are the fiestas for? The reason for fiestas is so the neighbors can get to know each other as well as the kids, with everyone playing and dancing in the streets. They are very close, like extended family. This is the way they preserve their tribal connections with each other. Barcelona takes their fiestas very seriously and they are a very important part of their lives together.
One of the fiestas I was fortunate enough to experience was the procession of the gigantes, or giants. Every barrio makes their own giants, according to the style of their barrio. For example, in Barcelonetta, which was once a fisherman’s village, their gigantes are a fisherman and his wife, who has fish on her hat. Other barrios have different gigantes that reflect the history of their neighborhood. There is evidence of processions of gigantes as early as 1424 in Barcelona, starting with religious figures such as processions of Corpus Christi. In recent centuries, they have taken on less of a religious and more of a cultural style.
The procession I saw started in the sweet Plaza of El Born with all the gigantes on display for people to see up close. They were made of fiber glass with amazing clothing and gowns of incredibly rich fabrics. Once the procession started, it meandered through very narrow ancient, winding streets and ended up at the Santa Caterina Mercado. Several barrios were represented in the procession, which lasted for about 3 hours. (I’m sure they had food and more fiestas in private areas after the actual procession ended). Every barrio had different gigantes that were accompanied by their neighborhood band. Yes, the gigantes all danced with each other to their band and all the barrios had different gigantes, dances and music, which reflected the flavor of their barrio.
One of the things that fascinated me was how the entire family was involved. The large gigantes were carried by grown men. But there were chickens, fish and dwarfs who were handled by children. Under each gigante was a structure that looked like a large wooden chair with big pads so they can carry then on their shoulders. They sure looked heavy to me! Each gigante had about 5 people ready to carry it, once a carrier got tired. The chicken had several kids to carry it who were only about 4 years old! So, you can see how they grow into the larger gigantes as they grow up. Once the chicken walked for a bit and did its little dance, everyone clapped and celebrated their display, then they changed to another child carrier. The entire family is included in their fiestas. There is no age gap here and I bet no babysitters.
One thing to note is the difference between gigantes and dwarfs and what they call the deformed ones. They seem to honor all types of individuals, including dwarfs and oddly shaped people, by making gigantes that look different, like the diversity of people. Dwarves are heads with a person inside that appear to have shortened human bodies. The peephole for the carrier is on the forehead or the hat of the figure. On the other hand, the bigheads are a prosthesis in the form of a head, usually human, that is worn on the shoulders of the carrier, giving the impression of being a deformed person, with a huge head. In this case, the carrier sees through the mouth or double chin. Many of these smaller heads were worn by children or teenagers. I have to admit that I couldn’t tell the difference between the dwarves and the deformed ones, as they all looked a bit strange to me. Then there were those who were there to lead and maintain order in the procession. They wore cowhides, whips and bladders, which I’m sure gave them authority. I loved all the gigantes, whether they were Kings, Queens, Chickens or Dwarves.
The Pagan Side
Now for the wilder, more raw side of Barcelona -- which they proudly call their Pagan ancestry. There are many fiestas, especially during the summer, but nothing compares with the Fiesta de Sant Joan. This year it occurred on Saturday June 23rd and celebrates the longest day of the year, (In the Northern Hemisphere), or the Summer Solstice. The origin of this celebration is pagan and is part of a group of holidays coinciding with the Equinoxes and Solstices, like Christmas. The tradition goes back to the Romans with their festival honoring their Goddess Pales, a deity of fire. Bonfires are built in all the Plazas of different Barrios with the ancient belief that the fire would scare away any evil spirits that were present. One of the honored traditions was to jump over the bonfire three times to ensure good health and happiness. There are still those who jump over the fires.
Although pagan in origin, this festival was borrowed and integrated into Christianity and renamed as the celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, who was said to have been born six months before Jesus. He was of course known for baptizing Jesus. Even though this fiesta was incorporated into the Christian festivals, the pagan traditions remain strong.
The eve of Sant Joan is full of magic rituals. There are three pagan parts to this celebration: Fire, water and herbs. Tradition holds that the fire frightens away all the bad spirits and it is said that those who burn objects during this festival will be cleansed of all their sins. Fire is for purification.
Then there is the water element. As the custom goes, many wet their heads, arms and legs at the water spout on the boulevard of Passeig Sant Joan. Others jump in the sea at midnight to wash away old energy. It is said that the Barcelonian grandparents took embers and logs from the ceremonial fire and at the stroke of midnight, they threw them down the wells to purify the water. In the writings of folklorist, Amades in his book, Costumari Catala, he said that, “St. John the Baptist, apostle and evangelist, by the power vested in by God, delivers the water in this well from evil witches”. Water is for cleansing.
The other ritual done a few days before the Eve of Sant Joan, is the gathering of sacred herbs. It is said that these herbs will have strong medicinal powers if collected and used on this sacred night. The herbs are for healing.
Ok, I thought I was prepared for this evening of festivities . . . not really. It was much, much wilder than I could have ever imagined. Each Barrio prepared their plaza with their huge bonfire and then it all started. I was having a lovely dinner in Barcelonetta, a Barrio by the beach and all of the sudden I heard these loud fireworks and saw the parade lead by the Diablos, or devils. There were grown up Diablos and kid Diablos leading the wild parade with major firecrackers. Ok, what are the devils all about?
I talked to a local Barcelonian who told me that this is also a celebration of fertility and the Diablos and wild beasts were there to remind us of the potency and fruitfulness of this season. After the lead Diablos were many people in different animal costumes as well as drummers. Amazing drummers, also in costume. Hey, I’m a big lover of parades, but this topped all the parades I’ve seen, including the incredible Dia de los Muertos procession in Tucson. Ok, I finished my dinner quickly and had to follow the parade, that was heading to the beach.
Oh my, what a scene it was on the beach! There were bonfires everywhere with firecrackers and fireworks going off in the streets, on the beach and everywhere. I have to admit it was a little disconcerting to see two-year old kids running around with firecrackers exploding all around them. Of course, clothing is optional on the beaches of Europe, so many were naked running around with fireworks! It was quite a sight to see. Ok, this party lasted all night. It really didn’t start until almost midnight and lasted until dawn, kids and all. I didn’t make it that long, but long enough to experience the wildness of this pagan night of ritualistic celebration.
Once again, I talked to my friend, who was born in Barcelona, and asked him about the danger of the fireworks and kids. He said that the parents want to teach their children about fire and fireworks early in their lives so they have no fear of fire. I laugh about when my fire troupe does a performance in Tucson. We need to meet with the Fire department and get an official approval to do our show. One of the rules is that no one can be closer to 30 feet from the fire. Ok, that sure doesn’t hold true for Barcelona!
I found a great vista where I had a view of the beach and the fires with fireworks going off constantly. The only other party that rivaled this wild event was Burning Man. But I do think that the Fiesta de Sant Joan was much, much crazier than my experience at Burning Man, which I thought was impossible.
Here’s hoping that the pagan in all of us can feel free to experience life, fire, water and herbs fully. Thanks to the pagan side of Barcelona, I want to get even more wild and free in my future.