Ferias and Festivals

August 2010

Ferias and celebrations are part of every day life in Spain all year long. Their roots are in the religious and agricultural cycles of traditional life, although, with some notable exceptions, modern Spaniards largely focus on fiestas as joyful events for the extended family to mingle with the rest of the community.

Earlier this year my wife Ruth and I were planning a couple of visits to Andalucía to be with our eldest son Tim, his wife Amy and their family. For the first six months of this year they were living in El Puerto de Santa María and had enrolled their two young sons (ages 7 and 10) in a Spanish school. Our thought was to plan two separate visits that would include events we would enjoy sharing with our grandsons.

The joyful options included the historic Carnaval of Cádiz, where Ruth and I had such fun before. Certainly, we thought everyone in the family would enjoy participating in that revelry. Or perhaps our family would enjoy being part of the Feria de Abril in Sevilla where citizens of that beautiful city dance sevillanas into the night with family and friends.

On the other hand, the boys might like the elegant Feria de Caballo in Jerez de la Frontera, the city where they were attending school. It seems only yesterday when I held their uncle Jonny as a baby in my arms as we admired the handsome caballeros and señoritas riding gorgeous Andaluz horses while their families rode in magnificent horse-drawn carriages in the fair ground. (Actually that was some thirty-five years ago!)

On a more serious note, we also wanted our family to experience the profound processions of Semana Santa, which takes place in the street of just about every town in Spain. We were familiar with the famous one in Sevilla, but thought the experience of Holy Week would be more meaningful on a smaller scale. 

A poignant memory of Holy Week in our 'hometown' of Puerto is still fresh in my mind. I remember when our little boy Tim got out of bed late in the night and peered wide-eyed through the wrought iron grill of our street side window to see solemn penitents silently processing by with their hoods and candles.

We ended up with a good solution. In February, we went with Tim and his family on the last day of Carnaval in Cádiz. Sunday is especially set aside for children – lots of balloons, cotton candy, kids in costumes and groups of young people singing on street corners. In April the boys’ two cousins visited, just in time to see a little bit of the Holy Week processions in Jerez. 

Ruth and I returned in May to see the horses and carriages of the Feria de Caballo. It was Ladies' Day, when women don their festive polka dotted feria dresses, rent horse-drawn carriages with uniformed drivers, and ride around the fair ground singing and laughing with sherry glasses in hand!

Then it was off to the feria in bustling Puerto. Our newfound friends Carmen and Juan Carlos treated us parents to a small flamenco show in their sherry bodega, and then included us in their visits to their lifelong friends in the casetas, or family booths. Our grandchildren, Ben and Sam, joined us when school was out for the day. We strolled together along the wide dirt paths between casetas, but soon they heard the siren call of the carnival rides.

Livestock fairs are major events for families and friends in rural towns of north and central Spain. At these ferias de ganados, people gather to see the latest magic in agricultural machinery. Of course, farm machinery and livestock are merely an excuse for the whole town to have time together. The famous markets in Tolosa or Gernika are flooded with local families and their friends who come to eat, drink, sing and laugh together for about eight hours, with no tractor or animal in sight.

Romerías, weekend retreats, are especially popular in the north of Spain, from the central Pyrenees west to the Picos de Europa to Galicia. These humble romerías involve all the families of the village and are prompted by the veneration of a local virgin or patron saint.

In any given weekend you can find a village where families are heading outdoors dressed in hiking and mountain garb with umbrellas if need be - even the very old are driven in jeeps or 4-wheel-drive vehicles so that they can be with their families at the romería. They attend an outdoor Mass in the morning, and then fill the rest of the day with food, drink and song. The great thing about a romería is that it is perfectly acceptable to roll out your blanket after your picnic lunch and take a siesta! For many people the romerías are simply an opportunity for families and friends (or boys looking for that special chica) to meet and have a daylong picnic on some mountaintop. 

Is there anything like this in America? My first thought was the August hospital fair I went to as a child each summer in a New Hampshire village. Like the ferias of Spain, the event involved many of the local community and there was a festive aspect to it, but it was a charity fundraiser. A county fair might be an approximation, but unlike Spain, the fair will have people from many different cultural backgrounds whose ties intersect, which of course is the definition of America. 

What is absent in American fairs is an opportunity for grandparents, parents and children - or cousins, uncles and aunts - to share the experience in common. A Spaniard does not go alone to a feria, but as part of a family. It is wonderful how these traditional festivals continue to be an important way to renew the bonds of the family and to bring communities together even in this increasingly secular time. Maybe you can plan something together as a family on Labor Day.