TAKING ADVANTAGE of the good weather and holidays, most neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities in Spain host their most important local festivity during summer: their Fiesta Mayor. One of the most peculiar Fiestas in Barcelona took place between last 15th and 20th of August in the bohemian neighbourhood of Gràcia. Around half a million of people, both locals and tourists, have visited this year the 18 streets and squares as well as the 36 portals decorated by the neighbours of Gràcia.
It was a warm festive night in mid-August in the Plaça del Diamant in Gràcia’s neighbourhood in Barcelona. Colometa could barely hold her excitement. The reason to celebrate: the district’s annual festivity, the Festa Major de Gràcia, was back once again. Under a large white tent in Plaça del Diamant, Colometa danced all night with the young man who would soon become her husband. That would precisely be her last memory of bliss before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
Colometa is a fictional character in The Times of Doves, the most acclaimed Catalan novel written by Mercè Rodoreda. However, Colometa’s nostalgia when evoking those summer festivities in Gràcia is far from unreal. Every year hundreds of thousands of Catalans, especially the young ones, eagerly long for that time of the year when the Festa Major de Gràcia comes back to the city.
A long-awaited event: the Fiesta Mayor
Each neighbourhood, village, town or city in Spain hosts every year its own Fiesta Mayor, which is the year’s most important celebration.
The Fiesta Mayor normally commemorates a historical or traditional milestone or it is dedicated to a saint or virgin who is the patron of the municipality holding the festivity. Nowadays, this kind of Fiesta represents the annual meeting point of the whole local community to celebrate together around the squares and streets of the town. From young to old, from more to less wealthy – everyone is welcome to join.
All Fiestas Mayores have some common widespread traditions and events, such as musical performances, traditional meals open to the public or a welcome opening speech by an important public figure. At the same time though, all Fiestas also have their distinctive and exclusive celebrations that allow you to experience different local festivities and never get bored of them.
Street decorations’ competition: a unique tradition
Gràcia is an area in Barcelona well-known for its bohemian atmosphere, its unique customised cafés and shops and its charming squares, such as Plaça del Sol, Plaça del Diamant or Plaça de la República. In spite of being part of a city which is a popular summer destination for tourists, Gràcia has managed to keep a certain local village essence. This spirit might be explained by the fact that Gràcia was an independent municipality until it was annexed to Barcelona, along with other neighbouring villages, in 1897.
Considering these particular traits, it is predictable to assume that an emblematic neighbourhood like Gràcia should also have its characteristic Fiesta Mayor. Gràcia hosts every year the district’s festivities a week on from the 15th of August. Traditional dances and meals, firework shows or concerts are some of the activities that spice up Gràcia’s day and night life. However, the reason why the locals of Gràcia -the Graciencs- spend almost one year preparing for its festivities in August is clear: street decorations.
The Festa Major de Gràcia holds an annual traditional competition of street and squares decorations among the different zones of the neighbourhood. The Festa Major de Gràcia Foundation selects every year three main winners under General Category and gives several prices under Special Category for specific parts of the decoration, such as roofs, portals or the lighting.
The Jury is formed by at least 5 professionals from artistic fields such as scenography, photography, window dressing or painting.
High competition and demanding rules
Though it might seem not that problematical, ornamenting the streets is not an easy task for the Graciencs. The competition between streets is every year higher and higher, since the neighbours put great efforts in defining and elaborating the most original yet elegant decorations. Moreover, the contest’s regulations are also very strict. For instance, it is totally forbidden that the ornaments showcase any name, brand, company or personal interest as well as that no external enterprise or professional is allowed to contribute in the execution of the decorations.
As a consequence of these guidelines, the streets often display hand-made and recycled decorations locally elaborated, which prove that low-cost, traditional or eco-friendly can also be synonym of beautiful. As an example, one can observe these embellished plastic bottles of water turned into decoration.
In line with these principles, innovation is a key factor in the decorations. From the 80s until the present days, the streets of Gràcia have been turned into a wide range of scenarios, from the North Pole to Abbey Road and from the underwater world to Peter Pan’s Neverland. This year the visitors have had the chance to travel from an Amazonian rainforest to a land of zombies without leaving Barcelona.
A historical celebration
The origin of the Festa Major de Gràcia dates back from the 19th century, but it was not until the early 1900s that the streets and squares started being ornamented. The first street decorations’ competition officially coordinated by the local organisations is said to have taken place in 1935. After this joyful endorsed commencement, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) halted any kind of celebration. Once the war was over, the festive activities in Gràcia were quickly restarted, fully supported by the new authorities, which took this kind of gatherings as a great opportunity to slowly normalise the civil society.
In view of the harsh repression in terms of freedom of expression by Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), the Graciencs initially found a valuable chance in decorating streets to implicitly speak their minds. 70 streets and 5 squares were ornamented in Gràcia in 1942. The Festa Major de Gràcia suffered a certain decadence from the late 50s until the late 70s, with only a few streets being decorated.
Finally, from the 80s until our days, with the restoration of the citizens’ democratic rights and the motivation of the neighbours associations, the locals reengaged in the original values of the Fiesta.
Now that the Festa Major de Gràcia 2014 is over, an outburst of melancholy will be back. Luckily enough, it will only take one year of preparation for the next celebration to return to the city.
Words by: Adriana Díaz Martín-Zamorano
Cristian Meneghi, Flickr
Freddy Monteiro, Flickr
Jaume Meneses, Flickr