Las Fallas & the Night of Fire

March 19

Las Fallas has been described as a “pyromaniac’s dream” and a cross between “a bawdy Disneyland, the Fourth of July and the end of the world.”

Mascleta, March 2004
Mascleta, March 2004

So how did the next-best-thing to the Apocalypse come to be celebrated on the feast day of Saint Joseph, adoptive father of Jesus?

Well, though St. Joseph’s Day is celebrated as Father’s Day across Italy, Spain, and Portugal, the Valencians chose to celebrate another calling of Joseph.

Joseph is also the patron saint of carpenters, an occupation that made up a good segment of the urban population in the Middle Ages. According to “Valencia en la epoca de los Corrogidores“, each Autumn, carpenters carved special planks of wood to serve as candle holders, either free-standing or hanging on the wall. Called estai, parot, or pelmodo, these medieval lamps provided light for carpenters to work by during the long winter nights.

Apparently the Valencian carpenters weren’t big fans of recycling. Each year on St. Joseph’s Day they would celebrate both their patron saint and the coming of spring by burning these special wooden candle holders along with any leftover wood.

The pagan tradition of burning effigies on or near the spring equinox had long been a ritual in pre-Christian Europe. The Valencia carpenters had the idea of killing two birds with one stone. The dressed up the wooden lamps as unpopular local authorities—perhaps an unscrupulous sheriff or maniacal mayor—before burning them.

Over the centuries the pelmodos became more and more intricate. Today they are not candle holders at all, but are sculptures as big as houses, large float-like creations that portray anything from reviled politicians to hot-topic social issues, such as “globalization swallowing the world.”

Globalization swallowing individual dignity, Las Fallas
Globalization swallowing dignity & identity, Las Fallas, © Pasi Rein

After five days of festivals and celebration these miraculous, almost supernatural creations go up in smoke, just as in days of yore. Called “La Crema”, the bonfires take place on the evening of Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19, and for one long night the conflagration makes Valencia look like —well, let’s just say Nero’s Rome couldn’t hold a candle.

(the flames really get going around 50 seconds)

La Fiesta de Las Fallas (Spanish)

10 Reasons NOT to go to Fallas

Valencia y la República

Las Fallas – Triumph of Fire

Spain’s Christmas Lottery – El Gordo

December 22

Spanish Christmas Lottery ticket

The Spanish Christmas Lottery isn’t officially a holiday, but it’s an inseparable part of the holiday season in Spain, dating back to 1812. Each December 22, the entire nation waits on the edge of their seats for the winning numbers to be announced on TV, in a program that takes several hours. It’s estimated that 98% of Spanish residents take part in this lottery. It’s the largest lottery in the world in terms of payout.

“Spain spends more per head on gambling than anywhere else in the world…not because they are habitual gamblers but simply that the christmas lottery is a tradition in which the whole nation partakes!”

El Gordo –

The first prize, aka El Gordo (“the fat one”), is 3 million Euros. May not sound like much, but the 3 million isn’t split up. Rather, there are close to 200 winning tickets, and each winner gets 3 million Euros! When you take into account that’s just one of the 1770+ prizes, the pot is well over 2 billion Euros.

Second prize is 1 million Euros. Third prize is 500,000 Euros.

The lottery tickets are more like raffle tickets on which the numbers are already printed—ie., you don’t choose your own. This enables the government to control the maximum number of winning tickets: 195. There are 195 “series” of tickets, each containing tickets with numbers ranging from 00001 to 85000. So if the winning El Gordo number is 78,294—as it was in 2009—there are a maximum of 195 winning tickets. [OK, apparently it’s more complicated than that, as participants can choose to purchase “one-tenth” of a ticket for one-tenth the price, in which case they could claim only one-tenth of the prize should they win.]

The big winner in the Christmas lottery is the same each year: the Spanish government pockets 30% of the gross, not to mention any unclaimed prizes. Close to a billion Euros!

Anyway, the point is, Christmas is a special time. A time of giving and of gambling.

But if you get an email informing you you’ve won the Spanish Lottery, as many people do, there’s a 100% chance it’s a scam. According to the U.S. State Department:

“To enter and win “El Gordo,” you must be a resident of Spain and purchase your ticket within the country. Keep in mind YOU CANNOT WIN IF YOU DID NOT BUY A TICKET! … It is against U.S. federal law to play a foreign lottery through the mail or over the phone.”

And if you did happen to win the Spanish Christmas Lottery this year, don’t forget “Every Day’s a Holiday” on your Christmas list!

Nativity of the Virgin Mary

September 8

Happy Birthday Madonna!

No, not that one.

On September 8, the Catholic world celebrates the birth of the Virgin Mary.

Nativity of Mary

Little is know of Mary’s birth from the Bible. The Gospel of James (which didn’t make the final cut) list her folks as Joachim and Anne (Hannah). The couple was childless until they were visited by an angel who informed them a child was forthcoming. Anne promised the child would be brought up to serve the Lord.

Mary would have been born “Mariam” or מרים

For two-thousand years, the Virgin Mary has been the symbol of feminine spirituality in Christian culture. While Eve was unfairly vilified as the bringer of original sin throughout the Middle Ages, Mary represented the opposite, the ultimate purity and the the bringer of God.

Pope John Paul ll in his 2000 millennium message elevates the status of both Eve and Mary. He describes Eve as the original symbol of Humanity, the mother who gave birth to Cain and Abel, and Mary, who gave birth to Jesus, as a symbol of the New Humanity; one in which All Humanity is One in Spirit with God. This statement changes the context which the Christian doctrine has relegated to women; that the Spirit of God resides equally in male and female.

Contemplation of Mary – St. Mary’s at Penn

Visions of the Virgin Mary have been spotted by worshippers throughout the Christian world. One of the most famous of these was witnessed initially by three children in Fatima, Portugal in 1917.

On the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, many Mediterranean and Latin-American villages carry her statue from local churches through the streets. Local Spanish processions are known as Virgin de la Pena, Virgin de la Fuesanta, and Virgin de la Cinta. Peru has the Virgin of Cocharcas, and in Bolivia it’s the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Virgin of Guadalupe procession in Bolivia (c) Reuters
Virgin of Guadalupe procession in Bolivia © Reuters

And it may not be Madonna (Madonna Louise “Like A Virgin” Ciccone)’s birthday, but singer-songwriter Aimee Mann turns 51 today…and rumor has it she’s still a Virginian.

Easter comes and goes
Maybe Jesus knows…

Aimee Mann, “Thirty One Today”

Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

La Tomatina

Last Wednesday in August
August 31, 2011
August 29, 2012

364 days out of the year, Buñol is a quiet, ordinary Spanish town country nestled in the foothills of the Valencia mountains about 40 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast; its population is just shy of 10,000.

But if you happen to visit Buñol on the last Wednesday of August, don’t wear your finest. You will notice that the population has tripled in size, the bulk of these tens of thousands have amassed along a few narrow streets, and they’re all engaged in a peculiar activity: throwing tomatoes.

Lots of tomatoes.

Over a hundred TONS of tomatoes.

La Tomatina is essentially the world’s largest food fight. (Although the Great Kettering Elementary School Food Fight of 1986 comes close.)

We wish we could say La Tomatina originates from an ancient pagan fertility rite, but it’s only 60 or so years old. Stories of the festival’s origin vary. Combining them would sound like this:

During a Gigantes y Cabezudos festival (the kind with the really big heads as featured in Borat) some rowdy spectators attempted to become participants, knocking over a big-head-carrying procession member in the process. A scuffled ensued among the hot-tempered youths.

Now, the people of Buñol had always enjoyed throwing things at each other. And fortunately for posterity, a truck or cartload of tomatoes had overturned just prior this auspicious occasion, providing the feuding parties with the perfect ammunition.

The following year authorities hoped to stem a repeat of the disaster, but the veterans of the previous year had some unfinished business to attend to.

The activity was first sanctioned by Town Hall in 1950. It was permitted and prohibited intermittently over the next few years. It got out of hand in 1956, townspeople got hurt, and it was canceled the following year. Some folks held a Tomatina Funeral instead. The festival was brought back by popular demand in 1959–but with regulations*–and they’ve been throwing tomatoes ever since.

Yes, La Tomatina started out as a Buñol style gang war. Perhaps in the States, if we armed our inner-city youths with tomatoes (in LA, avocados) we would attract tourists instead of violence.

As it is, in Buñol tens of thousands of tourists flock to La Tomatina each year. The festivities begin with the scaling of the “soap pole”. A ham is stuck atop a tall greased pole, and the tomato throwing can’t begin until a brave crowd member retrieves it.

*If you go, it’s considered proper Tomatina etiquette to squish your tomato before hurling it. Don’t bring bottles or anything that could cause injury, and be careful not to rip other people’s clothes. And it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing red or not. You will be.

La Tomatina


One writer’s horrifying story:

“Our red tornado became an inexorable hurricane. It was becoming difficult to stand upright in so much slush and with so many wet missiles impacting from every possible direction. We blotted out the sun and sky…I had become one vast squelching mound of pulped tomato…

Seeing Red — Louis de Bernieres

What To Do With Your Extra Tomatoes

The Way of Saint James – Spain

July 25

Saint James

July 25th is the feast day of St. James.

James and his brother John, sons of Zebedee, were two of Jesus’s twelve Apostles. After Jesus’s crucifixion, James took the Gospel westward to unchartered territories—Iberia—and never looked back. Oh wait, he did look back, unfortunately. After receiving a vision of the Virgin Mary, James returned to Judea where he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I in 44 AD.

But that’s not the end of James’s story. No, James’s hagiographers tells how James’s followers risked their lives to bring James’s body back to Iberia. They witnessed several miracles on the way, eventually laying his relics to rest at the edge of the western world: Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain.

Santiago de Compostela is the destination for thousands of pilgrims who make the journey to St. James’s resting place each year. The route is known as Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James.

El Camino Frances, Spain
El Camino Frances, Spain

The most commonly traveled route is the Camino Frances. It starts somewhere north of the border in the French Pyrenees near St Jean Pied de Port. The trail winds 780 kilometers westward across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, though many pilgrims continue a little further west to Cape Finisterre on the Atlantic. Finisterre comes from the Latin for “land’s end”.

The cape was once believed to be the end of the world.

On foot the pilgrimage takes about a month of walking. Peripatetic veterans recommend walking from 6am to 1pm. There are plenty of towns to stop in along the way, and such a schedule figures in nicely with the Spanish siesta, falling around 2pm each day.

The numbers of pilgrims have skyrocketed since the 1980s, when only a few thousand travelers would make the journey each year. These days that number is in the hundreds of thousands. Religious devotion varies among trekkers.

“Modern Pilgrimages seems to be a lot less about religion and more about peace, finding something in their life, a time to think, and for some a challenge…

“I did not set out on a Spiritual or religious journey – but it ended being that way…”

All about El Camino de Santiago

Running of the Bulls – Encierro

July 7 (St. Fermin’s Day)

14 people have been killed in the San Fermin Running of the Bulls since 1924, when they began counting. To give you an idea of the scope of the mayhem, that’s almost equal to the number of people killed by vending machines in the U.S. since 2001.

Running with the Bulls (aka the Encierro) has been a Pamplona tradition for centuries. Local organizers remind tourists to take safety precautions and warn them of the potential for serious injury. The warnings are often shrugged off, but last year two California brothers got the point in the end.Protesters aren’t so concerned with injuries to humans, but with cruelty to animals. 40,000 bulls are killed by the bullfighting industry each year in Europe. These and other facts about bullfighting are ‘exposed’ during PETA’s Running of the Nudes, which coincides with the festival each year.

Who knows which Run the good Saint Fermin would prefer?


Q: So who is this Saint Fermin anyway, and what does he have to do with bulls?

A: St. Fermin was the son of a Roman senator in Pamplona. He converted to Christianity, was named a Bishop in Amiens, returned to Pamplona to lead his flock, and was martyred back in Amiens in 303 AD. He was actually beheaded, not slaughtered by bulls. And in September, not July.

It was his predecessor Bishop Saturninus of Toulouse who had the honor of being tied to a bull by his legs and dragged to his death. The two saints’ martyrdoms are sometimes confused because of Fermin’s association with the Encierro.

The tradition of honoring St. Fermin in Pamplona dates back to 1186, though the liturgical festival was originally in October. It was moved to July 7 in 1591 to coincide with the summer market fairs and bull ceremonies.

The Martyrdom of Saturninus of Toulouse

So if you’re running with the bulls this week, stretch beforehand, wear good shoes, and be careful where you slip.

[Also on July 7: the Japanese celebrate Tanabata, the reunion of the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi—stars in the heavens who are permitted to visit each other one day of the year—the seventh day of the seventh month. People create beautiful origami in their honor and write wishes on tanzuku to send up to the two briefly reunited lovers.]

San Isidro – Spain

May 15


Just when Madrid sobers up from back-to-back celebrations of Labor Day and Dos de Mayo, it pulls out all the stops for the week-long celebration of San Isidro.

San Isidro (1070-1130) is Madrid’s patron saint, whose feast day falls on May 15.

A simple farm worker, Isidro never had much money, never led a diocese or congregation, never fought in a war, and was not martyred or notably persecuted for his faith. Nor was his wife Santa Maria de la Cabeza (Saint Mary of the Head). And yet Maria and Isidro are among the few husband-and-wife teams to be canonized in 2000 years of Christendom. (Though it did take 500 years for the Pope to do so.)

[Iberian Gothic? 12th century saints Ysidro & Maria reincarnated]

The couple lived in poverty for most of their lives, but they were known for their generosity, giving more to the poor than they kept for themselves. Stories of Isidro’s miracles, like the materialization of food and water for the hungry, are reminiscent of Jesus feeding the masses with a single loaf of bread. According to legend, one day Isidro’s scythe struck the earth, and a spring burst forth with enough water to sustain the whole city.

In the 900 years since Isidro and Maria walked the earth, farmers have called on them for relief in times of drought.

The holiday also marks the beginning of bullfighting season. Spanish bullfighting traces its roots back to Mithras, imported from the Middle East either through Rome or North Africa.

“The killing of the sacred bull (tauromachy) is the essential central iconic act of Mithras, which was commemorated in the mithraeum wherever Roman soldiers were stationed. Many of the oldest bullrings in Spain are located on the sites of, or adjacent to the locations of temples to Mithras.”

If you’re with PETA, and bullfighting doesn’t do it for you, concerts and dancing fill the streets the whole week. Parks are converted into open-air verbenas, where celebrants wear traditional attire: chulos and majos for the guys, chulapas and majas for the ladies.

Chulo is a derogatory term sometimes applied by other Spaniards to the inhabitants of Madrid. It means arrogant. But the Madrilenos take it in stride. Dressed in chulo and chulapa costumes, performers live up to their name in a stylized dance of exaggerated arrogance.

Strange that a holiday in honor of a man so down-to-earth would be celebrated by imbibing vast quantities of alcohol and performing dances that exude arrogance.  But as the Spanish say…

Cada uno en su casa, y Dios en la de todos.

San Isidro and Santa Maria

San Isidro in Madrid

San Isidro the Laborer: A Worker’s Life Anchored in Christ

Madrid’s Festival of San Isidro

St. Isidore: the Patron Saint of Farmers

Dos de Mayo Uprising

May 2

Goya's "Dos de Mayo, 1808"

“The population of Madrid, led astray, has given itself to revolt and murder. French blood has flowed. It demands vengeance…”

— Joaquim Murat, 1808

Guerrilla warfare. To any kid who’s failed a spelling bee because of one of the most misspelled words in the English language, you’re in good company. Before learning the proper spelling, I too assumed it was war that took place deep in the African jungle.

The term ‘guerrilla warfare’ is used to describe tactics adopted by small militias and individual fighters, often in Third World countries, to engage larger occupying forces in small skirmishes rather than large battles. It comes from the Spanish word “guerra”, meaning war. And though guerrilla warfare has been a key component in dozens of South American conflicts over the last century, the term guerrilla hails from the other side of the Atlantic, from a conflict that began 200 years ago in Madrid.

In 1807 Napoleon signed an alliance treaty with Spain, which effectively split the country of Portugal between Spain and France. Portugal was taken without hardly firing a shot.

The following February, however, Napoleon turned on his Spanish ally. (A history lesson not lost on Hitler.) Napoleon didn’t even need to invade Spain; for the country was already inundated with French troops who had crossed the border under the pretense of invading Portugal. Meanwhile, Spain’s troops were scattered from Denmark to Portugal, many of them on loan to Napoleon. Spain was, militarily speaking, screwed.

Add to the plot a cast of wacky feuding royals (In March, Prince Ferdinand overthrew his father King Charles IV with the support of a discontented Spanish public) and you have the makings of a full-on Peninsular War.

Napoleon ingeniously played the Spanish royal pair against each other, calling father Charles and son Ferdinand up to French Bayonne for a little ‘mediation‘. [pronounced: ‘im·pri′son·mènt’]

Come Leap Day, French troops entered Barcelona–by pretending to be a convoy of wounded–(and you wonder why the Spanish don’t trust the French?)–and took the city. The French general Murat entered Madrid the following month.

Joaquim "I'm Too Sexy For My Haircut" Murat

About this time the Madrilenos began thinking maybe their beef was not with either of their kings, but with the French. Napoleon ordered the remainder of the Spanish royal family, including Charles’ 25 year-old daughter Maria Louisa, her uncle Don Antonio, and her little brother, the preteen Francisco de Paula, to join them in French Bayonne for a little more ‘mediation’.

The following morning had been fixed for the departure of the Queen of Etruria [Maria Louisa] and the Infante D. Francisco de Paula, and many persons, chiefly women, collected before the Palace to see them off…and some of the populace” were “determined that the last of the royal family should not be taken from them without resistance...” History of the Peninsular War (Southey)

An armed riot broke out, and Murat’s forces fired on the crowd. Soon, street fighting erupted through Madrid, focusing around the palace and the Puerta del Sol.

For a short time the Madrilenos pushed back the surprised French guards, but Murat sent in reinforcements, and quashed the outgunned Spanish rebels by nightfall.

Goya's The Third of May, 1808

On May 3, hundreds of Spanish rebels were executed by firing squad. News of the mass killings spread throughout Spain and the Spanish resistance was born. Guerrillas, referring to ‘little wars’ and the soldiers who fought them, changed the course of the Napoleonic era, not by defeating the French in large, decisive battles, but by engaging them in a steady stream of small attacks over thousands of square miles.

In February Napoleon had bragged he could take Spain with 12,000 men. He did take Spain, but he had to divert 160,000 of his troops from other battles to do it.

Napoleon called the guerrillas his ‘Spanish ulcer’. In 1813 British, Portuguese, and Spanish forces expelled French troops from the Iberian peninsula for good.