The Catalan and Spanish people love to celebrate and their festival traditions are unique, lively and colourful. No matter when you visit Barcelona and Catalonia, Spain you are bound to stumble upon one festival or another. The traditional festivals (called ‘festes’ in Catalan and ‘fiestas’ in Spanish) are celebrations of the land and sea by the farmers, and fishermen and sailors, and the annual festivals of the villages, towns, and cities, along with the markets and fairs.
The origins of many of these festivals go back so far that their roots are lost in time, and fall into the times of legends. Many have pagan roots from the prehistoric times of the pre-Roman Celts and Iberians. These were added to during the Roman times, and then the Christian period came to dominate, and put a Christian name and feel to the festivals.
One great, overarching theme running through the festivals of Barcelona and Catalonia is fire. The fire is represented by bonfires and a wide range of fireworks displays, including the ‘correfoc’, the firerun, where people dance in a parade in the streets dressed as devils and wave pitchforks with firecrackers attached that fly off into the watching crowd.
Another common element of the festivals are the ‘gegants’. The giants are pairs of enormous costumed papier maché puppets, and their retinue of other human and animal puppets that are paraded through the streets.
Here are a few of the most spectacular events throughout the year.
Pasqua (Easter). Late March / late April
The main spring festival is Easter (Pasqua in Catalan, Pascua in Spanish) that began its life as the Jewish festival of Passover, and became the Christian festival celebrating Christ’s resurrection. It is a moveable feast as it falls on the Sunday immediately following the first full moon in spring and this date also determines those of a whole series of mobile feasts which precede and follow it: Carnival, Lent, Holy Week, Pentecost, the Ascension, and Corpus Christi.
Holy Week (Semana Santa) begins on Palm Sunday, and includes solemn processions in the streets and churches. Like Christmas, Easter is a family festival, and a main tradition is that godparents give their godchildren ‘mones’ – cakes decorated with eggs and other trimmings and chocolate eggs. These cakes are eaten on Easter Monday.
In northern Catalonia ‘Caramelles’ are songs which groups of local people sing at houses and farms in exchange for gifts of food.
Sant Jordi (St. George’s Day). April 23rd
Sant Jordi (St. George) is Catalonia’s patron saint and his feast day is celebrated in Barcelona and Catalonia with a wonderful festival of roses and books. Stalls selling flowers and books line the streets, making it one of the most brilliant and popular festivals all over Catalonia. Tradition has it that a girl or woman gives a loved one a gift of a book, while a boy or man reciprocates with a gift of a rose.
Setmana Medieval de Sant Jordi Montblanc (Montblanc medieval week of St. George). April 23rd to May 5th
The charming medieval walled town of Montblanc has turned St. George’s Day into a two week-long celebration of Montblanc’s and Catalonia’s medieval past, with a whole host of activities, exhibitions, processions, and food and drink opportunities in the streets, shops, and bars and restaurants.
Mare de Déu de Montserrat (The feast of Our Lady of Montserrat). April 27th
Along with Sant Jordi, the black Madonna statue of the Virgin Mary (called ‘la Moreneta’, ‘the little dark-skinned one’) is also a patron Saint of Catalonia. The statue and the mountain monastery of Montserrat where it lies is one of Catalonia’s most visited sites, and the feast day of April 27th is a special of the year, with a mass dedicated to the Virgin, and a festival of traditional activities including the castellers (human pyramids) making human towers, food stalls, live music, and groups performing la Sardana, the traditional dance of Catalonia.
Patum de Berga. May 30 – June 3
Corpus Christi is a slightly unusual Christian festival as it appears to be one of the few without pre-christian pagan roots. It is a festival that began in the 13th century that involved processions, and became one of the great festivals of the year during the medieval period. The Corpus Christi festival in Berga in the foothills of the Pyrenees is called the Patum de Berga, and it has been declared a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Locals dress as symbolical or mythical figures and dance to the rhythms of a drum, all the while framed by the light and smoke of firecrackers. The dances are a powerful, solemn spectacle with plenty of stunning fireworks, huge gegant sculptures, and colourful traditional costumes.
Corpus Christi, Sitges. Late May / late June
Another wonderful Corpus Christi celebration in Catalonia is in the small seaside town of Sitges, a train ride south of Barcelona. Here the streets are decorated with flower carpets, formed by freshly picked flower petals. This is followed by the traditional parade of the gegants (giants) and their accompanying musicians which parades over the flower carpets.
Nit de Sant Joan (St. John’s Eve). June 23rd
The summer solstice is marked in Barcelona and Catalonia with its riotous summer festival of St. John’s Eve. Fire is centre stage – bonfires in the streets and squares, rockets, firecrackers let off in strings, and firework displays. It’s organised chaos, with grannies and toddlers letting off fireworks on street corners, egged on by their neighbours. All-night parties in homes and public places, where people eat pastries decorated with candied fruit and pine nuts and drink Cava until the light of the next morning.
Festa Major de la Mare de Déu de les Neus, Vilanova i la Geltrú (Vilanova i la Geltrú annual festival). End of July to beginning August
Every town and city holds their own Festa Major, an annual festival dedicated to its patron saint, and these are throughout the year depending when the Saint’s feast day is. As an example, for my adopted home town of Vilanova i la Geltrú, the patron saint is Mare de Déu de les Neus, St. Mary of the snow. It’s a two week-long festival packed with street parades, exhibitions, concerts, and festivities, traditional music and dances, and outdoor meals. These run during the day and the night, with thousands of people on the streets participating and spectating. The many parades include the procession of gegants – the enormous pairs of papier mache puppets, and the correfoc – the parade of firecrackers.
Festa Major de Gràcia (Gràcia annual festival). Mid-August
Many towns have their main annual festival based around August 15th, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The neighbourhood of Gràcia in Barcelona is one of these, and its Festa Major sees its streets wonderfully decorated, with the streets in the neighbourhood competing to win the prize of being the best decorated street. Along with this, the neighbourhood has the traditional range of parades with gegants, correfocs, and plenty of stalls with food and drink.
La Diada Nacional de Catalunya (National Day of Catalonia). September 11th
The National Day of Catalonia is one of the most significant events of the year. Although it is unusual for a holiday to mark a military defeat, this day marks the occasion where Catalan troops were defeated in 1714 by the Bourbon King Philip V of Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession. The fiesta is a tribute to the 4,000 Catalan lives that were lost during the Siege of Barcelona. Thousands of Catalans come every year to lay flowers at the cemetery near the Santa Maria del Mar church where they are buried. You’ll also see the red and yellow stripes of the Catalan flag draped all across the city. Outside of Barcelona it tends to be a quiet day, with Catalan families visiting relatives to have a meal together.
Festa de la Verema, Poboleda (Grape Harvest Festival, Poboleda). Early September
Grape harvest festivals are celebrated in the different Catalan wine regions in September and October. A fantastic one, in a fantastic wine region, is in the town of Poboleda in the Priorat wine region. The grapes are tread with the bare feet in a basket to extract the grapes, followed by wine tastings along the main street, a fair of craft products, and performances of the castellers.
La Mercè. End of September
La Mercè is Barcelona’s festa major, and has been an official holiday in Barcelona since 1871, when the local government organised special activities to mark the Roman Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Mercy. The event has grown in popularity since and has become one of the biggest events of the year. All events are free and the metro trains in Barcelona run all night during the festival.
The festivities include a 10km race, traditional music and drumming, dancing in the streets, a musical featuring synchronized fireworks at the base of the Montjuic Mountain, castellers, the gegants, the correfoc and day and night parades.
Castanyada (Literally means ‘Chestnut’). End of October
All Saints’ Day (Tots Sants, 1 November) is the main feast of autumn and signals the approaching winter. It is intimately tied to All Souls’ Day (Dia dels Morts), which is commemorated the day after. On this day families will visit cemeteries to tidy up and decorate the graves of their deceased relatives.
Associated with these two days is the Castanyada (castañada in Spanish), a traditional festival with pagan / Iberian / Celtic roots. In Catalonia, the traditions include eating roast chestnuts, baked sweet potato and preserved fruit – typically washed down with a glass of sweet wine, like moscatell. Throughout towns, stands roast chestnuts for passersby to buy and take home.
Christmas. December 25th
The Christmas season is a time of Christmas fairs, parties, and great family meals and reunions. Barcelona and many towns have Christmas fairs, where you can buy all sorts of arts and crafts and food and drinks. On the streets you’ll see the caga tío, a wooden log with a smiling face and a red beret (barretina), which children hit with a stick on Christmas Eve until it defecates (yes, seriously!), thus providing small sweets and toys.
The big day of course is Christmas Day, with people attending the traditional midnight mass (Missa del Gall) on Christmas Eve and then enjoy a light meal. In some churches there is the Cant de la Sibil·la (the sibyl’s song), a beautiful liturgical ceremony dating back to the medieval period.
On Christmas Day, December 25th, families typically have a Christmas lunch. Typical seasonal fare includes escudella i carn d’olla (various stewed meats, the broth from which is served separately with noodles), stuffed chicken, fish, torrons (almond sweets), and Cava (sparkling wine).
On Saint Stephen’s Day (December 26th), the second day of Christmas, another family meal takes place with main dish being pork cannelloni served with a bechamel sauce.
Festa dels Reis (Epiphany). January 6th
Bigger than Christmas Day is the Epiphany on January 6th. On this day, traditionally the three wise men arrived to visit baby Jesus bring him gifts. In Barcelona and towns across Catalonia there are huge parades where three legendary figures – the White King, the Blond King, and the Black King – parade through the streets, throwing sweets to the crowd. This is the day that the children also get their Christmas presents.
Carnaval (Carnival). End February / early March
Carnival time is the period leading up to Ash Wednesday, the first day of the liturgical season of Lent. Traditionally Carnival is a festival of unrestrained revelry and debauchery. Many towns have a varied way of celebrating Carnival to the Rio-styled Carnival of Sitges, to the more ‘old school’ version in Vilanova i la Geltrú.
In Vilanova i la Geltrú, the Carnival celebrations include the Merengada. The Merengada is a massive food fight with meringue, with hundreds of people flinging meringues at each other. Another of Vilanova’s Carnival celebrations is the Comparses where groups of pairs in traditional costumes follow around a band, dancing and drinking, and flinging sweets at passersby and rival groups of other Comparses that they encounter as they make their way around the town.
These are just a few of the many thrilling fiestas that take place in Barcelona and Catalonia throughout the year. If you have a chance to take part in any of them during your visit, it will be an unforgettable travel experience.