Spanish Traditions Overview

Spanish traditionsAt the backbone of Spanish traditions and culture lies its many meaningful (and numerous) traditions unique to each region and even further down to the province, city and village. These customs are practiced and celebrated in the form of festivals, days of fiesta, pilgrimages, and annual ferias celebrating religious icons, sports, fishing, agriculture, wine, music, dance and food just to name a few.

The calendar is full of national days of fiesta, not counting the abundant and diverse provincial traditions and celebrations. In the veins of Spaniards run thick the blood of a passionate and proud people who whole-heartedly maintain and pass on through the generations the many ancient traditions.

Whether there is a solemn religions procession or a bull fight, the atmosphere is always bursting with excitement. Loud shouts of “ole!” or a marching band of drums and loud trumpets, not to mention the gut wrenching flamenco singers….Spain cries out its pride, pain and alegria (happiness) in all manners of expression.

To be fair, the list of Spanish traditions and customs in all is nearly impossible to include here.

Below are a list of the most popular celebrations, traditions and customs in Spain , however there are many that have not been included but are definitely very worthwhile to see and partake in the festivities.

Religious Celebrations

Ever present are the religious based holidays which provide the core of many celebrations and constitute a major part in Spanish traditions. The most famous of which take place in Andalucia where they are the most elaborate and have the largest following.

The spectacular Carnival in Cadiz which takes place in February (preceding Semana Santa – Holy Week) is the most celebrated carnival in Spain. During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church adapted a pagan festival as a way for Catholics to let off a little steam before the Lenten fasting. Flashy costumes, great music and grand parades take place in the streets of Spain, creating an exciting atmosphere and joyous party. The carnival in Cadiz can even be compared in scale and energy to the Carnivals in Brazil.

Semana Santa (Holy Week) which takes place in April is probably the most significant religious celebration, a defining moment that sets Spain apart from the rest of Catholic based countries in Europe. Flowers and lit candles adorn huge floats featuring lavish life size statues of Jesus and Mary in tragic re-enactment of the events of Holy Week.

Members of various brotherhoods carry these floats (pasos), bearing the weight on their shoulders for hours on end as the floats travel to the town center and then back to their church of origin. They are preceded and followed by large marching bands playing mournful and eerie music with devotional hooded penitents walking alongside. The floats of Jesus and Mary (Jesus is always followed behind by Mary) are taken out beginning with Palm Sunday, progressing to a climax of grief through Thursday night and emerging to a triumphant and joyous end on Easter Sunday.

Streets full of enthusiastic and curious on-lookers watch the daily processions go by, sometimes in oppressive silence. However, the general atmosphere is one of celebration. Seville has the most renowned Semana Santa processions.

The huge and spectacular floats are carried by as many as 90 men, a true theatrical showcase of religious fervor. Malaga follows behind as the next most impressive Semana Santa but each pueblo large or small (especially in Andalucia) gives its own special touch to the processions.

Corpus Christi is a movable feast at the end of May celebrating the triumph of good over evil and culminates in the procession of the Host through the streets which are carpeted with flowers and scented herbs.

Christmas Eve is generally t he quietest evening of the religious holidays in Spain , an evening reserved for family and a fine feast.

Fiesta de Los Reyes “Three Kings Day” is the moment when the three kings bring presents to the children, on the evening of January 5th. The following day the Three Kings parade draw out all the local children as the Kings ride through the streets on camels tossing sweets to the crowds.

Romerias (Pilgrimages)

Romerias or pilgrimages usually take place in smaller towns or villages as opposed to the larger capital cities. Spaniards are particularly enthusiastic about their local romerias which evoke deep feelings to the townspeople.

People dressed in traditional Spanish attire of the region set out on foot, horseback, or colorfully decorated ox carts, carriages or caravans to some remote or sacred spot, usually to a shrine of the Virgin or Saint. Each town typically has its own statue of the Virgin or Saint that travels with the group to the final destination. The trips can be as short as one day (there and back) or up to one week (depending on where they begin).

The travelling crowds sing and play music enthusiastically (usually flamenco) as they travel and camp along the way. The merriment usually goes to early morning and then begins again! The two most famous and with the largest following today and historically are the Romeria to El Rocio and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

In Andalusia a Romeria of thousands travel to the small town of El Rocio with only 1,000 inhabitants. Followers, largely made up of gitanos (gypsies) make their way to the Shrine of Senora del Rocio (Our Lady of the Dew) also known as La Blanca Paloma (The White Dove) in the province of Huelva. This is an occasion of much flamenco, dancing and horsemanship. The culmination of the celebration happens at 3am when the much loved statue of Rocio is carried out of the church on the shoulders of devotees into the crowd of people, waiting to express their devotion and love.

The famous painstaking pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia takes devotional pilgrims to the great Cathedral of St. James, the sacred goal of, and reward of the hardships of Europe’s most celebrated pilgrimage. Upon discovering the tomb of St. James the Apostle pilgrims began to arrive as early as the 11 th century.

The main route out of France led across the Pyrenees down to Pamplona and across to Santiago. Other routes from Southern/Central Spain were also traveled. Modern day pilgrims can go via bicycle, horseback or on foot but must have formal permission to travel this route.

Along the way travellers check into the various missions and historic locations to get a stamp on their papers to confirm their travels. Upon completion of this long arduous journey, a certificate of completion is given to each person.

Annual Ferias, Festivals and Fiesta

From each region to each town there are annual celebrations throughout the year known as “fiestas” and “ferias”. Fiestas may include such celebrations as Saints Days, harvest days, sports events, bull fighting, music and on to town celebrations.

If you want to experience, first hand, Spanish traditions and culture in action, then a festival is the place to be. Festivals offer the best opportunity to witness active demonstrations of everything the regions have to offer from its food to its fireworks, its clothing to its musicianship…… and they are great fun.

Valencia holds its fiesta of St. Joseph’s Day starting March 19 th called “Las Fallas”. On this day a large comical and satirical paper mache figure is set on fire amongst a grand display of fireworks.

Catalonia celebrates its patron Saint, Sant Jordi Day on April 23 rd. This is traditionally celebrated by a man giving a red rose to a woman and a woman giving a book to a man.

Cordoba is full of charming courtyards, plazas and flower filled patios. Each May there is a contest “Fiesta de las Cruces” where participants open their lavishly flowered patios for visitors and are judged to see who has the most elaborate and beautifully decorated Andalusian style patio. Additionally, large crosses which are exquisitely with flowers are placed in plazas throughout the town.

San Juan’s Day or Saint Joan’s Day (mid-summer’s night) on June 24 th is celebrated in most coastal towns by the making of large bonfires (and often fireworks). At midnight everyone jumps over the flames to bring good luck for the following year.

In the province of Castille-Leon is the pre-eminent wine town of Haro. On June 29 th thousands of people take part in the Batalla de Vino (wine battle). For two hours people pour, squirt, spray and throw red wine at each other disposing of many thousands of litters of red wine. Traditionally, participants all wear white which, of course, is quickly soaked to a light purple color.

The “Fiesta of San Fermin”, the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona in July is in honor of the towns patron Saint San Fermin. The whole town lines the streets to cheer on the runners dressed in white and red as these dare devils run (literally) for their life to escape being trampled and gored by the sharp bull horns as the bulls make their way from one end of town to the other. A week long fiesta follows this one day event, devoted entirely to bull fights.

Galicia is renowned for its strong sportsmen and holds numerous competitive sports events ranging from rowing, canoeing, wood chopping, ox-cart races and games specific to the regions such as fronton and pelota. They hold the world’s largest annual canoe race in August.

The major fiestas of the Basque Country in the cities of San Sebatian de Compostela, Vittoria and Bilbao take place in August. Clearly demonstrating the different customs in each town is “Vitoria’s Fiesta de la Virgen Blanca” which begins with a peculiar and humorous start. A mannequin carrying an umbrella is lowered on a rope from the San Miguel church tower to a house below in the plaza. A man in similar clothes comes out of the house and the waiting crowds applaud and everyone lights a cigar.

“La Tomatina” in Valencia which is held on the last Wednesday in August is the highlight of the annual fiesta in Bunol. The battle starts at 11am and lasts for one hour.

This is a tomato battle where thousands of participants, dressed in their worst clothes, pelt each other with ripe tomatoes. The town provides truck loads of ripe tomatoes for the crowds to hurl at one another. The battle originated in 1944 when there was a battle between friends but other rumors say that dissatisfied locals pelted civic dignitaries during a procession which later became an annual tradition. As it becomes better known, there are more people who attend and therefore more tomatoes are thrown!

The Harvest festival of Jerez de la Frontera (famous for its Spanish Sherry) takes place in early September. Similar festivals also take place at this time of year in the larger wine producing regions such as La Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

Feria de Perdo Romero in Ronda (first half of September) proudly celebrates the Romero family, the founders of modern bullfighting. The main attraction is the Corrida Goyesca with toreros (bull fighters) dressed in costumes based on the paintings of Goya. Ronda is very proud of its status as the birthplace of modern bull fighting and having the oldest bull ring in Spain, being inaugurate in 1784. It was here in the 18 th century that the Romero family first laid down the rules of bullfighting that remain valid to this day. This is also a great feria to hear and see authentic Flamenco.

Spanish traditions – Dance and Music

Certainly, dance and music, too, come into picture while talking about Spanish traditions and customs as a whole. The Sardana, the dance form found in Catalonia is an integral part of this regions folklore. Participants join hands and dance in a circle. Catalonians still dance the Sardana today on weekends and at festivals.
The Jota dance typically seen in Old Castille is a trademark dance like flamenco in Spain. The Jota is very athletic with a lot of jumping and kicking.

Sevilla has one of the largest and most attended ferias and it is here (and at many other fiestas in Seville) that you will find people dancing “Sevillana”. It is the most popular of the region, a folk dance showing traces of Moorish and Oriental culture seen in the graceful regulated movements.

Flamenco, probably the most well known dance in Spain is more than just a dance; it encompasses music and culture as well. It’s now one of the major highlights of age-old Spanish traditions. Early on it developed into a way of life cantered around the music and dance, most typically for the Spanish gypsies (gitanos). More than simply a type of folk music, flamenco embodies a complex musical and cultural tradition specifically a product and part of the culture of one region in Spain – Andalucia. The roots of flamenco grew out of the unique relationship of native Spanish, Moorish, and Gypsy cultures that existed in Andalucia at the time. Once the seeds of flamenco were planted, it grew as a separate subculture, the gypsies being the predominant creators of flamenco.

The flamenco music and dance is dramatic and aggressive yet at the same time it is graceful and touching. The music and dance express passionately such themes as: happiness, sadness, loneliness, suppression, persecution, religion and family. Originally, flamenco consisted of acapello singing. Later, the songs were accompanied by guitar, rhythmic hand clapping, feet stomping and dance. More recently, other instruments have been introduced, such as the cajon (a wooden box used as a percussion instrument) and castanets. The music and dance are also often found without song, although song remains at the heart of the flamenco tradition.

The Verdiales music originated in the Malaga region and is one of the oldest types of Andalusian music making which dates from the 16 th Century Morisco era. This music has been handed down unchanged over the centuries and still can be heard in local ferias and celebrations.

The most unusual music can be found in the area of Galicia where a strong Celtic influence sets them apart from the rest of Spain in their traditional dance and music. Bagpipes are the traditional instrument, again confirming the Celtic connection and the similarities to the Scottish and Irish.

Spanish traditions – Cultural Traditions

Bull fighting is probably one of Spain’s most controversial traditions for most visitors, yet it is the most revered by the Spaniards throughout the country. The Corrida de Toros exhibition fights against wild bulls with the splendidly costumed bullfighters (matadors/toreros) demonstrate the battle between human intellect and animal instinct which makes for a compelling spectacle. Enthusiastic on-lookers cry out “Ole, Ole” as the torero completes the specified requirements, ultimately ending with the bull’s death. The season is usually from April-October. Most towns usually coordinate their annual feria around the bullfights.

For reasons that remain a mystery, Catalans love building human pyramids. Strong men, often assisted by a tightly packed crowd, put their arms on each other´s shoulders to form a tight circle. Working to a well-rehearsed plan, men and women, boys and girls climb on to their shoulders and form up to nine human tiers. A very young boy or girl is the last to go up and quickly raises a hand to show that the pyramid is complete. Dismantling the pyramid safely is an integral part of the operation. Many of the castellers (pyramid builders) come from Tarragona, El Vendrell, Valls, and Vilafranca de Penedes, but they travel all over Catalonia to give feast day displays.

Siesta” an important tradition for visitors to beware of, is still very much a part of Spanish daily life. In Spanish tradition, it is a customary break from 2-5 is still widespread through Spain. Businesses and schools close so workers and children can return home to eat a leisurely family lunch together, once again putting importance on the family bond. Larger cities now are slowly losing this siesta break to adapt to the modern business day of 9-5.

To get into the routine of eating in Spain takes a bit of getting used to. Typically a light breakfast is eaten around 10am, a late but hearty lunch is eaten usually between the hours of 2-4pm with the restaurants closing from 4-8pm. For a more lively and festive time to go out for dinner, most diners eat around 10pm. Accordingly, the night life goes until the early hours, it is not unusual to find yourself leaving the disco at dawn.

One custom that is also very noticeable is how the Spaniards love to stand (for hours)….at tapas bar or while just having drinks with friends. The bar will be packed with the neighbourhood clientele (including older people and families with small children) while the tables are virtually empty. So, wear comfortable shoes and find yourself a spot at the bar!

Spaniards are probably the happiest and most lively people you will meet. So join in the celebrations, they will happily accept you into the circle! The above information is not all, there are many more things on Spanish traditions and customs to hold you spellbound.

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