It’s impossible to decide which aspect of Valencia’s city-wide festival is the most impressive: the explosive volume of the Mascletàs; the controlled chaos of the nightly pyrotechnical fireworks; the 800 or so elaborate monuments, some nearly 100-feet tall; the neighborhood light displays; or the thousands of traditionally clad men, women and children who march to the Plaza of the Virgen to offer flowers, used to decorate a 45-foot wooden statute. Add in the food—giant pans of paella in makeshift sidewalk cafes, churro stands, sausages sizzling over hot fires and more—and well, it just can’t be compared to anything in the U.S.To even come close, you have to imagine New Orleans Mardi Gras crowds and parades combined with the family atmosphere, noise and pyrotechnics of the Fourth of July, plus over-the-top Christmas decorations and the religious pageantry of Easter. Then picture it all pumped up on steroids—for four days.
Though the details are lost in the murky history of the Middle Ages, the origins of the festival seem to be secular, overlaid with a significant veneer from the Catholic Church. Centuries before electric lights lengthened the short winter days, Valencian carpenters and other artisans constructed parots, wooden supports for lanterns to allow them to work later into the day. When spring brought more daylight hours, they gave their workshops a thorough cleaning and burned the parots, along with any broken artifacts, leftover pieces of wood and other detritus from the winter. Over time, the night of the bonfires became a sort of celebration of spring, and children would go from house to house begging for any discarded items to add to the piles. By the mid 1700s, las Fallas had become a regular municipal event. Somewhere along the way, the tradition of the spring burnings was co-opted by the church and the date became fixed as March 19, the day of St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.
According to my trusty (and incidentally quite swoon worthy) Valencian guide to the most noteworthy Las Fallas monuments, the tradition of using the discarded parots to poke fun at fellow Valencianos is centuries old as well. Because the contraption looked rather like a pointing scarecrow, the townspeople began to dress them up, often adding features that identified them as a particular person. By the 16th and 17th centuries, if it was known, for example, that the butcher was having an affair with the baker’s wife, the parot was likely to bear more than a passing resemblance to the meat-cutter, with a heavy dusting of flour. Gradually the costumed parots evolved into tableaus of giant figures, typically surrounded by smaller ninots, or dolls.
The monuments were originally made of cardboard, paper mache and wax; in recent years, they are constructed of light weight lumber, moldable cork and polystyrene. Each of Valencia’s neighborhoods erects at least one fallas, and typically two—the main one and a smaller one for children, called the infantil. (Walking around, it sometimes seems there is a giant lurking around every corner; there are nearly 400 fallas in the city itself.)
Neighborhood associations work on their fallas all year-round, raising money to build them, hiring the artists who design and make them and helping to erect them. An estimated one million tourists flood the city for the celebration (more than doubling its regular population) and the event as a whole is big business. In recent years, an estimated 750 million euros a year is poured into the monuments, the fireworks, hotels and restaurants, transit, security, flowers, music and other costs.
Each neighborhood fallas has a theme and nearly all use the opportunity to issue stinging commentary on public affairs and to mock local, national and even international public figures.This year’s winning fallas (yes, this is a fiercely competitive exercise) espoused the idea that “everything is play-acting”, and the ninots surrounding a 100-foot-tall dancing couple included Stalin, Hitler, de Gaulle, Kim Jong-il and other departed world leaders, dancing and drinking, suggesting that they weren’t really dead, but living it up in Benidorm, a popular Spanish resort town. Fidel Castro waited nearby to join them when his time came. The country’s major newspapers were represented as fun-house mirrors, distorting the facts they reported. Even President Obama and global security interests got a ribbing.
Other themes: A future in which everything, including sex is pictured quite differently–look closely at this amorous couple!. (Indeed many of the monuments feature some pretty racy figures.) Also, the inevitability of change. And of course, what the Spanish simply refer to as “Le crisis“.
The fallas are judged on creativity, skill and wit. But there are other criterion as well. Complex engineering is expected, for example, with cantilevered figures, mimicking the original parots’ cantilevered arms. Most importantly, they must be made entirely of flammable materials, because on the last night, the Nit de Cremá, a string of fireworks inside the monument is ignited and the structure is burned to the ground. The last to go are the winner for the year and the monument on the Plaza de la Ayuntamiento, the city’s main square. This year, it was an enormous lion–beautiful both whole and when burning. By morning, all was cleaned up; not even the ashes remained.