From March 1st to the 19th (and a little bit before that), in a small city called Valencia, Spain, there is a holiday called “Fallas” which nobody would ever believe existed unless they experienced it. My latest nomadic journey took me here, to this precise city, and although I often question how on earth I arrived here, it has become a species of home. Today is the last day of Fallas, and as I sit here typing this indoors, outside it sounds like the remnants of world war II taking place all over the city. No one can tell the story the same about how it started and why, but even those who complain can agree that once it is over, it all feels like it didn’t even happen. According to most, the holiday celebrates the day of St. Joseph, the humble carpenter who became the father of Jesus. However, others say it is a celebration of the initiation of spring. The most convincing story I heard was that in the 18th century or so, peasants in the countryside of Valencia would work relentlessly on their carpentry by the light of fire lamps. They would work all throughout the dark winters, and once the sun began to shine for longer, they would toss their lamps into the hay, and burn all of the old projects and things that they didn’t want to keep from the old year. Apparently the burning of the objects, and the celebrating of not having to work by fire lamps turned into a big thing, and all of that escalated into the insane holiday we know today. There are many parts to this festivity; the main one being the building of the “fallas”, enormous colourful and satirical sculptures of different themes and sizes which are displayed all over the city. These sculptures are judged, some are prized, and in the end, they are all burnt to the ground (yup, you read correctly) they burn them. An iconoclastic act of “cremation” gets rid of every single one of these sculptures which people had photographed only days before. Another interesting portion of this festivity are the “falleras”, women from every section of the Valencian province who wear these “baroque/regency” period gowns, with grand adornments in their hair and march throughout the city in representation of their “falla”. It’s such a big deal in fact, that many of these women compete to become what they call “fallera mayor”, it’s a type of pageant queen, but it’s really a lot more than that. It is considered an honour to the area of Valencia where you are from, you must be a “true” Valencian in a sense, it’s not just about physical beauty. For many little girls in Valencia to be a Fallera is a goal, it’s something they aspire to, and families invest lots of money into their gowns and hair styles, and also into their learning of the dances and costumes they must participate in.
Fallas is an extraordinary festivity, there is nothing like it all over the world. In fact, the most impressive part of Fallas aren’t even the Falleras, but rather, the immense amount of pyrotechnics, fires, bombs, rockets, and explosions that are heard throughout the city at every given moment. Fallas is most definitely an explosive and exaggerated holiday in every way you can think of. Kids of all ages walk around the city throwing different types of mild explosives and lighting things up (I’m actually not kidding). From the 1st day of March all the way until this afternoon, the center of the city was home to a canon and explosive show called “La Mascleta”. Everyday at 2pm, you got to live what it would sound like living in a country that’s at war and being bombed for about 8 minutes, all with the soundtrack of “Valencia en Falles” in the background, a song you’ll hear at least 10,000 times before this festivity is officially over. Not only that, but from the 15th of March and beyond, you get to hear even more explosives at midnight and beyond. I know what you’re thinking… “do people sleep during fallas?” the answer is no. No they don’t. You’re not supposed to. You’re not supposed to shut your eyes even! Because Fallas is not about sleep and rest and relaxation, Fallas is about chaos and eating churros and chocolate until you end up half dead somewhere between Russafa and Patraix wearing your blue plaid fallero handkerchief and a cowboy hat you stole without noticing.
I was first introduced to this holiday last year, although I had heard rumours of it when I first arrived to the country. No one knew how to prepare me for it, nor did they know how to explain what it was, and honestly… now I know why. Even as I type this article, I can’t really describe this festivity in a way that paints a clear picture. There are a few types of people who will attempt to explain Fallas to you, most of them will fail. You’ve got the jaded Valencian folk who will tell you it is the most awful experience you’ll have for a month or so, they’ll advise you to leave the city, the country even… they’ll tell you to get the hell out. Then you have the rabid excited Valencian folk who probably own a falla on some street near their home, their grandparents were falleros, they are falleros, their grandkids are falleros, their pets are falleros and you just won’t understand the method to their madness, and you shouldn’t try to. Last you have those who stand in between some of the excitement, but will probably leave in the last weeks when the tourists arrive. I however, feel that I am none of these. I took to Fallas like an artist, like the natural anthropologist I am, in an attempt to see some sort of connection and depth in this holiday, and boy did I find it. See Fallas isn’t just a holiday, it isn’t just a festivity that has people building sculptures only to burn them in the end. Fallas is an allegory of life itself. Life is a Fallas celebration.
We dress up for it, we celebrate it, we make a huge deal out of it, it’s full of explosions and bombs, of fears and ups and downs, but in the end you show up just to see it all end. There’s an eerie and nostalgic feeling on this last night of Fallas, you can tell we are all waiting for it to end, you know that at this time tomorrow, Valencia returns to a normal average Spanish city. All of the ashes of the things you were excited to see are swept into a trash bin, and everyone goes home. The churro carts at the end of the streets, the taco stands, the men selling balloons, all of it is gone in the blink of an eye. People become a little somber, and what happens in “fallas” stays in fallas. This year, Fallas was incredible for me, I got to celebrate it with someone I love, and it was amazing. The explosions were out of control, the fireworks went on for a lot longer than you’ll ever hear them anywhere else on earth, the crowds were insanity, the marches and the bands didn’t stop. There were rows of over a hundred families making paella on the streets and roads you normally have to wait to cross; cars don’t really exist during fallas and it is surprisingly fun to see them disappear. You eat things you say you’ll never eat, and you dance to music you never listen to, you marvel at silly things, and people dress up sometimes. It’s chaos personified, it is something that you have to experience to understand, and even with all of that it is something everyone is a part of. I guess it is the thing I love the most about Fallas, it is that everyone joins in. The young, the old, the local, the tourist, everyone, we are all together celebrating this loud and over the top holiday that we don’t understand and yet we are happy. When you ask the kids for a wish, they’ll tell you they wish that Fallas would never end. But when you ask the adults, they often wish they didn’t go on for so long. It’s definitely not a “productive” festivity, most companies close, and getting anywhere is near to impossible. Just like life, Fallas is something that those who live as children cling on to, it is something that we crave and we just don’t want to shut our eyes for a second to miss. As you grow older, we stop living like children, we stop being excited about love, about living, about the truly innocent and pure things that make us laugh. We look for all of these sorts of enhancements, these fake stimulants to bring us the joy we’ve lost, the zest we became ashamed of. All year, people all over the province gathered explosives, designed the fallas, painted, worked together, had meetings, and organised this giant festivity for all of us to enjoy, and in one night everything will be gone. We will live our lives just like that.
There’s so much we do, so much we go through, and so many things we see, now more than ever I can relate to the depth of this holiday. I had an amazing time this week, I lived a full life, and I got to celebrate without thinking about work, I got to live like a child for a few days again. Tonight however, it all burns down, and tomorrow? Tomorrow we will be living in a melancholic daze, wondering if any of this truly even happened or not. There will be no tangible record of it, aside from our photos, and our leftover churros. Even the sparklers, and the confetti will be swept up, it will all be gone. Valencia captured it, this quirky little city captured exactly what the essence of life is. It’s chaos which is gone in the blink of an eye, it’s madness. So much goes on, it’s fun, it’s childish in reality and it doesn’t grow up even when we think we do, but it ends, and we always knew it would. Tomorrow is Monday, and tomorrow Valencia is just another city. One day we will realise that keeping our childish innocence and joy was all that ever mattered. Fallas, (like life) is a sort of dream, and tomorrow we will all wake up.