Feria de Abril! A Family Fiesta

Don Harris | April 2013

Imagine any city in America completely closing down for a weeklong party. That is exactly what happens in Sevilla, as the city’s families gather along the banks of the Guadalquivir River to celebrate the coming of spring. It is the Feria de Abril, Spain's biggest party! 

The feria is all about reconnecting with family during this the most beautiful season of the year. Sevilla is a magical place in the spring and early summer. Bowers of bougainvillea cascade over enclosures and sweet aromas from the jasmine vines, oranges and lemons waft in the air. 

The fair ground is located in the Triana barrio of Sevilla. In earlier times, it was the site of the famous agricultural horse fair where some of the finest Andalucian horses were traded. Some of these legendary horses shared the same bloodline as those in the Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez de la Frontera and the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. 

Now it is purely a spring fair, but what a fantastic fair it is! Each year an extravagant gateway is built to welcome the families of Sevilla as they erect an amazing tent-city of individual casetas. Each tent is a gathering site hosted by a family to entertain friends and extended family members. 

Many of the people of Sevilla were seriously involved in the Lenten devotion less than a month before; but now the rigors of Semana Santa are a fleeting memory. The members of the brotherhoods have returned the religious pasos to their resting places in local parishes, until the beginning of Holy Week the next year. If Easter is late enough in the year, the streets and patios of Sevilla will be lined with flowering citrus. The street sweepers gather the bounty of ripe oranges that have fallen to the ground from the trees that line the streets. 

Now it is time to enjoy visits with the whole family in the casetas. Within each enclosure, it is a time to catch up on the latest news from an out of town cousin or aunt, or to spend time with parents, brothers and sisters, as well as hang out with your favorite friends. In one caseta, you might find a flamenco guitarist playing and singing, while all ages of the extended family are dancing together.

Of course, since it is Spain, the bar at the back of each caseta features a portable kitchen serving a cornucopia of delightful tapas: simmering garlic shrimp served with picos bread sticks; boquerones fritos; glistening slivers of Jamón Ibérico; langostinos; cracked olives; Manchego cheese and almonds.

Visiting casetas is not a casual affair, it is not something to take lightly. If you are married, it involves dressing up meticulously and spending several hours in each of the four casetas that represent the four branches of your family. If I were a native of Sevilla, I would visit the people on my mother’s side in their family caseta, and then my father’s brothers and sisters. Then my wife’s side of the family, which is two more sets of relations! Finally, there would be time with my good friends and neighbors. 

This is a joyful event in which time is never a concern: good conversations, tasty food, wonderful reunions with people you care for -- what more can you ask for? But remember, in Spain you do not just exchange pleasantries; you become involved with the person, trading the latest family news over delicious tapas, Manzanilla sherry and beer. That is a lot of people to visit – you can see why a week is allotted for the affair. 

Then there is the ceremonial aspect to the Feria de Abril. Most women set aside their street clothes and don festive feria dresses -- mostly with bright colored polka dots and flamboyant flounces. The dresses can become quite elaborate creations with much fitting and stitching costing hundreds of dollars, and often only worn for one year, since the fashions change for every feria! Whether you are rich or poor, the dresses are a part of the fun.

When I say that women wear these dresses, I am not referring only to the young dark eyed beauties (and there are many of them). I am also referring to older women who are at least as exuberant dancers of the Sevillana as their daughters and granddaughters. They are refreshingly unashamed of their lost youth -- they are at the feria to have a good time. 

I remember seeing horse drawn carriages in which there were a group of housewives having the time of their lives in their feria dresses, with a glass of sherry in hand! Until 8:00 PM, families in horse drawn carriages promenade down the unpaved avenues outside the hundreds of family casetas. Some of the carriages even sport drivers and footmen in traditional dress. As they pass down the broad esplanades, I find it fun to admire the pageantry of a long ago era. It is reminiscent of the antebellum South in America, with their beautiful ladies in their hoop skirts.

When I think back on the feria in Sevilla, I picture magnificent Andalucian horses mounted with handsome caballeros and señoritas. The young men sit erect in their saddles, wearing broad brimmed black hats and gray vests and the strikingly beautiful young ladies are casually riding pillion behind their men. 

I know the picture of it sounds so terribly romantic -- of course it does, and that is because it is fact. My most precious recollections are the sight of children, mostly little girls in flamenco dresses, perfecting their Sevillana technique with each other. Some were under four years old! You can be sure that the admiring grandparents are close by. 

Lest you get caught up only in the romance, remember that the feria is a vast family reunion, not a tourist event. If you did not know anyone with a family caseta, you will only experience the feria looking in from the outside. These family gatherings are all about the social fabric of Sevilla, so in order to attend you will need to be the guest of one of the families. 

The closest event I can think of in the United States is Thanksgiving Day and perhaps Christmas Eve. Our families gather around these holidays. But ours is a different culture due to the vastness of our nation. It is not unusual for some families to be scattered over thousands of miles. It would take more than twelve hours driving for me to see my brother, or for my wife Ruth to see her brother and sister. I know of one person who flies from Virginia to Alaska to see her grandchildren!

In Sevilla the key is proximity, where families see each other many times a month, and they may have lived in the same neighborhood for all of their lives. They have friendships with others that stretch back to early childhood. The weeklong Feria de Abril is something the residents of Sevilla can count on as part of the rhythm of their lives.