Nov 13

Sateré-Mawé Initiation

Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

Although one of Brazil’s twenty-six states and home to several large cities, Amazonas remains largely covered by the dense foliage of South America’s lush rainforest.  In the depths of the jungle, many native tribes still follow their traditional ways of life.  Largely undisturbed by outsiders for many years, these independent natives carry on ancient practices and rituals that have contributed to their survival amid the perils that constantly surround them.

One of the largest of these groups is the Sateré-Mawé, a tribe of roughly ten thousand members that inhabits the northern region of Amazonas.  Although the tribe lives in relative seclusion and has little contact with outsiders, the Mawé have allowed the rare visitor to document their unique lifestyle and traditions.  Unaffected by external influences, the Mawé people offer a window into the rich history of American Natives.  They are a living example of a what used to be a much more common way of life.


While perhaps most notable to those who initially encountered them for being the first to cultivate guarana, the Mawé people are not primarily concerned with agriculture.  Their culture values strength and courage, qualities needed to protect the tribe from hostile neighbors and natural predators, as well as to provide a steady supply of food for its members.  Mawé warriors and hunters ensure the well-being of the tribe in many regards, and they are highly revered.  As a result, young boys in the tribe are raised with the purpose of becoming warriors constantly at mind.

Joining the ranks of Mawé warriors, however, is not an easy undertaking.  In one of the tribe’s most sacred rituals, young men hoping to gain the status of their elders must show themselves capable of enduring the worst that the jungle has to offer.  They prove their worth by remaining calm, often entirely expressionless, while experiencing excruciating pain.

The Mawé test their young men’s strength against a natural predator: the ant.  Although it may not seem a formidable challenge to a foreigner, the Amazon Rainforest is home to a particularly venomous species of ant.  A single sting from Paraponera clavata, the ant of choice for Mawé initiations, is capable of causing hours of pain.  The species has been nicknamed the “bullet ant” because a sting is said (by some victims) to be as painful as being shot.  The powerful toxin used by the ant attacks and interferes with the nervous system, often causing uncontrollable shaking even after the waves of pain have ceased.  The effects of a single ant sting have been known to last days; the warrior hopefuls of the Mawé tribe, however, do not sustain just one sting.


In preparation for the initiation ceremony, bullet ants are sedated and harvested from the jungle.  While unconscious, the ants are woven into a pair of gloves made from leaves, with their stingers facing inward.  To be considered a man of the tribe, boys as young as twelve will thrust their hands into the gloves for a full five minutes (or longer), being stung the entire time.  The tribe leads the initiates in song and dance during the ordeal, but this distraction is their only relief.


When the gloves are removed, the ants’ venom continues acting for hours.  In addition to the pain, it can cause muscle paralysis, disorientation, and hallucinations for hours.  And while completing the ceremony earns the young men respect, they must wear the gloves a total of twenty times before being considered fully initiated as tribal warriors.


Nov 13


Chumbivilcas Province, Peru

With the arrival of each new year, people of almost every nationality around the globe make resolutions to improve their lives.  Amid the celebrations, there is a common desire to leave the troubles of the past year behind.  One region of Peru has combined the joyous celebration that typically precedes the new year with the concept of communal betterment.  In a unique tradition known as Takanakuy, a growing number of Peruvians in the Chumbivilcas area prepare for the arrival of the new year by settling old arguments with neighbors, friends, and family.  As part of the annual celebration, the name of which translates to “when the blood is boiling,” quarreling parties clear the air over any disputes with physical fights, often ending in a knockout.

Peruvian drunk fights Takanakuy16 Peruvian drunk fights   Takanakuy


While trying to make peace through violent brawls may seem like a counterproductive notion, the Peruvians who take part in Takanakuy would disagree.  The fights are not primarily about violence, and certainly not about vengeance; instead, they are an honorable way to settle disputes, putting a definite end to petty arguments and preventing them from escalating.  Furthermore, the spirit of Takanakuy, which takes place on Christmas Day, is far more about community and solidarity than conflict.

There are many non-violent components of Takanakuy, including traditional dress that celebrates regional history.  Ski masks are so common in the Peruvian provinces that are located in the Andes Mountains, including Chumbivilcas, that those belonging to each region have developed unique designs and color schemes designating their place of origin.  Masks in the Chumbivilcas style (red, green, yellow and white), an easily recognized sign of pride, are a frequent sight at Takanakuy.  Elaborate costumes emulate historical periods, with popular outfits fashioned after Andean horsemen and colonial slave drivers.


Music at Takanakuy also holds important ties to the past.  Although the tradition has spread to urban areas, Takanakuy belongs primarily to the indigenous people of the Chumbivilcas region, who live under their own law without government interference.  Their preferred style of music, known as Huaylia, originated in the sixteenth century as part of a revolutionary movement; its lyrics emphasize the common Chumbivilcas ideals of freedom and independence, a spirit reflected by Takanakuy itself.

The fights themselves, which draw hundreds of spectators to a small region of the Andes, are not entirely unstructured.  The crowds are called together and process to a designated area, where those wishing to settle an argument may challenge an opponent by calling out his or her full name.  During the match, several officials keep the spectators in line with whips while another observes the fight.  Most fights end in a knockout, but all, by requirement, end with a handshake or hug.


While violence is an unorthodox way of making peace, it has worked for generations of Takanakuy participants.  Shared tradition, pride, and honor serve to unify the natives of the Chumbivilcas province.  With such a strong focus on community, Takanakuy allows those involved to see past petty conflicts and focus on repairing relationships.  And if all else fails, the days of heavy drinking before and after Takanakuy are often enough to build camaraderie.


Oct 13

Yank Tank


Following the end of the Second World War, Americans turned their attention to Communism.  Although the bloody, devastating conflict had come to an end, political tensions were rising.  The United States saw Communist influence as the greatest threat to American citizens, and its leaders sought to contain it as much as possible.  The Soviet Union, however, was seeking to expand its influence in the post-war years.

Relations between the World War II allies quickly declined, and the Cold War soon followed.  It was an unconventional fight, based on espionage, covert action, and politics.  The two nations never went head-to-head, but instead played an international game of chess (essentially a dynamic stalemate, with pieces moving but no one winning).  In many cases, smaller nations became pawns for the United States and Soviet Union to throw across the board at one another.

Cuba was one such pawn.  The Caribbean nation underwent a revolution in 1959, with a Communist leader replacing the U.S.-allied government that had been in place.  When the new government began nationalizing U.S. businesses and properties on the island, an embargo was established, greatly reducing U.S. trade with Cuba.  In response, the Soviet Union began compensating for Cuban trade losses.  The United States complicated the situation with the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion; following its failure, the embargo was strengthened to eliminate any trade with Cuba.

The Cold War eventually came to its end, and Cuba, no longer a valuable strategic pawn, has fought a losing battle with poverty ever since.  Unfortunately, because of its wording, the U.S. embargo remains in place.  Although efforts have been made to reduce its strength, trade with Cuba is still largely illegal for Americans.

Restricted resources have had some interesting effects on the island, including preservation.  Because it has not been able to import consumer goods since the Cold War, Cubans have relied on restoration rather than replacement.  This is most evident in their vehicles, the majority of which are pre-1960, American-made cars.


While some Russian cars were brought to Cuba after the embargo, they were strictly for government use.  Civilians were allowed to retain ownership of cars that had been purchased before the embargo (provided that they had the proper paperwork).  A personal car quickly became a valuable commodity.

Because the embargo also prevents Cubans from buying spare parts, any repairs must be done with what is available on the island.  To maintain cars that have now been running for more than half of a century, vehicle owners and mechanics have been quite resourceful.  In many cases, parts are improvised from other machinery or made from scratch.  For those who use their vehicles frequently (such as the taxi drivers on the island), Russian diesel engines have been rebuilt and modified to fit the American cars.


The classic cars, built in the over-sized style of their time, have become known as “Yank tanks” in reference to their origin and dimensions.  Unfortunately, as time takes its toll, repairs become more difficult and spare parts less plentiful.  Cubans have been forced to reduce their annual travel by roughly seventy percent.


However, even as some of the Yank tanks see their last days on Cuban roads, they retain an important purpose.  As relations between the United States and Cuba have improved, hope that the embargo will soon be lifted has grown.  With the market open for American collectors, Cubans may be able to make small fortunes from their beautifully preserved vehicles.  Road-worthy or not, the Yank tanks may offer Cubans some relief from poverty in the future.

Oct 13

Carnevale di Venezia

Venice, Italy

Italy has had strong ties to Catholicism throughout much of its history.  Consequently, many aspects of its culture have been influenced by the Church.  In Venice, for instance, the celebration of a military victory grew into an annual carnival preceding the holy season of Lent (a period of solemn fasting and prayer).


Although now famous as Italy’s city on the water, Venice was an autonomous republic between the seventh and eighteenth centuries.  Because it served as a significant trading port on the Adriatic Sea, the city was frequently forced to defend itself against foreign navies.  Following a victorious battle in 1162, the people of Venice celebrated so enthusiastically that they chose to commemorate the event each year.  The celebration was gradually lengthened and became less oriented around celebrating a single military success; instead, it shifted to fit the Catholic calendar.

The Lenten season is a somber time, meant for reflection through personal sacrifice.  In preparation for Lent, which begins each year on a day known as Ash Wednesday (ashes are used as a sign of penitence), many Catholics enjoy a last day of indulgence before they begin fasting.  The Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday has become the occasion of numerous celebrations, including the culmination of the Carnival of Venice (Carnevale di Venezia).

The Carnival developed alongside Venice throughout what remained of its time as an independent city-state.  It grew increasingly unique, enjoying the height of the Renaissance and enduring hardships like the Black Plague and numerous foreign attacks.  Unfortunately, with its infamous navy greatly reduced, the Venetian Republic fell to Austrian invaders (sent by Napoleon Bonaparte) in 1797.  The Carnival and many traditions associated with it were outlawed under the new rule.

In 1979 the Carnival was finally revived by the Italian government, hoping to preserve the rich traditions stemming from Venice’s unique history.  Lasting roughly twenty days, the modern Carnival attracts millions of international tourists who, along with the city’s residents, enjoy a wide array of new and old festivities alike.

Venice’s Carnival brought new life to one of the city’s oldest traditions: the wearing of masks.  Historically, decorative masks were worn for almost any celebratory occasion.  Venetians spent exorbitant amounts on ornate, hand-painted masks of varying styles so that they could conceal their identities before attending social events, including the Carnival.  Disguises allowed for unrefined behavior without the fear of ramifications; some acts were so outrageous that they led to laws restricting the wearing of masks in Venice, although they were always permitted during Carnival.

The Bauta was an extremely popular design because it allowed the wearer to speak, eat, and drink without removing the mask.  The feminine counterpart to the Bauta is called the Columbina.  The Plague Doctor (Medico della peste) design came into style as Venice was recovering from the disease.  When the Carnival began to be celebrated again after nearly a third of the city’s residents had been killed by the Plague, the doctor’s mask originally meant to reduce the risk of contamination was taken up as another Carnival-goer’s costume.


Masks remain an important aspect of the modern celebration of the Carnival of Venice, with both new designs and variations of the classics.  Music is often played in the city’s streets and many squares, including St. Mark’s (Piazza San Marco).  The city features many other forms of entertainment during the Carnival, with live performances, fireworks, and numerous other attractions for visitors.  Parades are held throughout the city, and the festival ends with a silent procession of boats along the Grand Canal.


Oct 13

Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival

Harbin, China

Northeast China experiences especially harsh winters, with an average temperature of -16.8 degrees Celsius (just over 0 degrees Fahrenheit) and a minimum as low as 35 below zero (-31 degrees Fahrenheit).  While the climate would be a natural deterrent to most tourists, one city in the region has found a way to capitalize on the cold weather.

Harbin, capital of China’s Heilongjiang province, turned a long-standing tradition of the northeast region into an annual spectacle.  Since 1963, the city has hosted the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, the largest celebration of its kind in the world.  Traditionally beginning on January fifth and lasting one month, the festival welcomes both traditional and modern sculptures.  As of 2007, Harbin boasts the Guinness World Record for largest snow sculpture.

The record-holding sculpture, 250 meters long and 8.5 meters high (over 270 yards long and more than 9 yards high, for comparison), was built in honor of Norman Bethune.  A Canadian physician famous for his revolutionary medical inventions, Bethune was also well-known for his anti-war sentiments and Communist ideals.  The snow sculpture created in his memory, called “Romantic Feelings,” featured elements reminiscent of the doctor, his work, and his homeland.

Snow sculptures are, in most cases, carved from a single block of packed snow (“Romantic Feelings” had to be created in two sections because of its immense size).  Sculptors use a wide range of tools, from hand shovels to hatchets, painstakingly shaping their masterpieces before crowds of onlookers.  In similar fashion, many popular attractions at the Harbin Festival are carved from ice.

Ice sculptures at the festival come in many forms.  One of the most common creations is the ice lantern, which has been popular in the region since long before the festival began.  These works are hollowed out by the sculptor and illuminated from within by a small candle; they are seen in both simple, traditional form and much more complex varieties.  Larger ice sculptures are often formed through a process very similar to that used to make snow sculptures: artists carve and chisel details into a solid block.  However, some artists have chosen to stray from traditional methods.  Implementing the latest technology in their work, some ice artists now sculpt with lasers.  This has allowed for increasingly intricate pieces to be made, and is one of the many reasons that Harbin continues to surprise visitors each year.


The festival is sponsored entirely by the government, with funds allocated from both the city and provincial treasuries.  Two areas of Harbin are designated for especially large projects, including one known as “Ice and Snow World.”  Open each night, this attraction features full-scale ice buildings.  Workers build the structures with blocks cut from the city’s river (the Songhua) and illuminate them with electric lighting.  Numerous other works, commissioned and unofficial, can be found throughout the city streets each year.


Tourists and locals also enjoy alpine sports, such as skiing and snowboarding, during the festival.  For the adventurous, sections of the Songhua River are open to swimming and diving from icy platforms.  Although infamous for snow and ice, Harbin also features pyrotechnics and fireworks to complement the festival’s frozen features.


Oct 13

die Wies’n

Munich, Germany

A festival first held in 1810 and known as die Wies’n among Germans (in reference to the fairgrounds that host the sixteen-day event), Oktoberfest is an annual celebration of Bavarian culture (Bavaria is one of sixteen German states; Munich is its capital).  Originally a gathering of Munich’s citizens, Oktoberfest has gained international notoriety for its unique, traditional dress and famous beers.

Oktoberfest began as a celebration of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig and Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, who were married on the twelfth of October in 1810.  The future king and his bride invited the people of Munich to take part in the wedding festivities, which were held on grounds named Therese’s Meadow (Theresienwiese).  Initially, the festival was meant to be held only once.  However, horse races that marked the end of the celebration were so popular that it was brought back the following year.  Oktoberfest became an annual tradition, and Germans came to call it by a shortened version of the name first given to the fairgrounds.

Oktoberfest has undergone several changes since its inception.  It now starts during September and proceeds until the first Sunday of October, allowing participants to enjoy better weather and a longer festival.  While the horse races that began the tradition were held until 1960, they have since ceased.  During its early decades, both an agricultural show and a parade were added to the festival.  The former is still held every four years, and the latter, a tradition honoring the marriage that led to the first celebration, became a permanent feature of Oktoberfest in 1850.

The Oktoberfest parade - with all participants decked out in traditional costume - takes to the streets of Germany


Music and dancing have become popular elements of the festival, with numerous bands playing throughout the fairgrounds each year.  Food and drink are also vital components of Oktoberfest.  Bavarian dishes include numerous variations of sausage, cheeses, and sauerkraut.  With up to seven million liters of beer (equivalent to almost twenty million 12-ounce beers, for comparison) served annually, die Wies’n is likely best known for its brewed beverages.  Since Oktoberfest became an official event in its early years, the production of beer for the festival has been well-regulated.  Following centuries-old purity standards, the ingredients for all die Wies’n beers must meet strict requirements, and the final product must be at least six percent alcohol by volume.  Furthermore, beer for the festival must be brewed in the city of Munich.  As a result, only six breweries meet all of the requirements to produce Oktoberfest beer.



As Oktoberfest is a celebration of Bavarian history, many who attend choose to dress in traditional styles.  Men don leather shorts with suspenders, called lederhosen (leather breeches), while women wear the dirndl, a traditional dress.  Both of these styles were typical of peasants and members of the working class throughout Bavaria when die Wies’n was first held.  The clothing serves as a way to preserve the Bavarian customs that are entwined in Oktoberfest and remember its origins.

Die Wies’n has grown over more than two hundred years to become the world’s largest fair.  Enjoyed by visitors from around the globe, it is a unique celebration that encompasses both the past and present of Bavarian culture.  Oktoberfest plays a key role in not only the preservation of tradition, but also in its ongoing development.

Oct 13

Coffeehouse Culture

Middle East

Coffee is a daily staple in many parts of the world.  For most, it is the source of a quick caffeine fix before the workday.  A trip to the café is often one of several errands with little significance.  However, some cultures have much stronger traditions regarding the coffeehouse.  In the Middle East, for instance, getting a cup of coffee (or tea) is a significant part of each day, with cultural and social importance.

The Middle East is a region that includes eighteen nations and is home to at least twelve languages.  Making generalizations about the culture in this region often creates inaccuracies, as there are usually exceptions to every rule.  However, one statement that can safely be made about Middle Eastern culture is that it emphasizes hospitality.  While it is customary to offer visitors (even unfamiliar guests) a meal or a cup of coffee in a Middle Eastern home, many Middle Easterners (particularly those in urban areas) now prefer to meet and socialize at a communal venue.

The coffeehouse has become the center of social life for a large (and growing) number of Middle Easterners.  Customs from the home were transferred to cafés, and many comforts besides tea and coffee are often enjoyed there.  One of the most unique is shisha (also called hookah, nargile, and argila), flavored tobacco smoked through a waterpipe.  Customers also play backgammon and other popular games to pass the time.


Typically, Middle Easterners will spend roughly an hour at the coffeehouse each day.  It serves as a center for discussion and offers a place to unwind.  Traditionally, only men frequented these establishments.  However, this has slowly been changing in recent years.  Cafés specifically catering to women have opened in more traditional areas, while crowds of mixed genders (especially among younger generations) can be seen in others.

Although something as simple as a coffeehouse may not seem to have broad implications, it does have great importance in the Middle East.  First, it is a place where longstanding traditions can continue to thrive.  Arabic coffee (often brewed with spices such as cinnamon, clove, and even saffron) and the widely enjoyed shisha have been common for centuries.  Cafés have preserved not only these regional specialties, but the social customs that accompany them as well.


Additionally, because they are the predominant site of social activity in many parts of the Middle East, it is not surprising that coffeehouses are often the birthplace of change.  As the revolutions of Arab Spring swept across the region, they were preceded by hushed conversations in cafés, whispers of rebellion that served as the sparks to ignite a much larger fire.  Similarly, coffeehouses have led to other forms of progress in the Middle East.  As women’s roles have slowly expanded in a very conservative culture, taking part in daily customs (like those of the coffeehouse) has accelerated change and acceptance.


The essence and importance of Middle Eastern coffeehouses, in actuality, has little to do with coffee, tea, or shisha.  Cafés are a societal center in the region and, while paralleled in other areas, remain a very unique aspect of daily life in the Middle East.

Sep 13


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The city of Rio de Janeiro (soon to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics) has gained international fame for the mountaintop statue of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) that overlooks the city and for its numerous, white-sand beaches.  However, just as unique as the city’s geographical features is the singular culture of its residents that has developed throughout Rio’s history.

Rio de Janeiro


Those who live in Rio de Janeiro (known as Cariocas in Portuguese) seize every opportunity to appreciate life.  In a city known for its beaches, the culture has become greatly oriented around life at the shore.  Its residents frequent the city’s beaches and, consequently, a large portion of Rio’s social scene takes place on the sand.  Brazil is also home to many fervent soccer (futebol) fans, and naturally the game has become a favorite pastime for Brazilians (including Cariocas).

Unfortunately, when the Cariocas took their favorite sport to the beach with them, problems arose.  Stray balls and rough play began upsetting an increasing number of beach-goers, tourists and native Cariocas alike.  Eventually, the sport was banned from all public beaches, disappointing many throughout Rio de Janeiro.

For those Cariocas who still wanted to hone their soccer skills without having to leave the beach, Octavio de Moraes presented a unique solution.  In 1965, Moraes brought a new sport to one of Rio’s most famous beaches: Copacabana.  Footvolley (futevôlei), a combination of soccer (called football outside of the United States) and volleyball, gained immediate popularity.  It quickly spread throughout the city, helping soccer players avoid the strictly enforced ban by adding a twist to their favorite sport.  By 1970, footvolley was being played in multiple cities throughout Brazil and beginning to spread beyond the country’s borders.

As you may have gathered, footvolley is played with a soccer ball on a beach-volleyball court.  Its rules are relatively simple.  Playing and scoring are governed by traditional volleyball rules, but players cannot use their hands.  This requires not only speed and agility, but also skill and accuracy when striking the ball.  Traditionally, games played between greatly skilled or professional soccer players were two-on-two in order to increase difficulty.  However, casual games are often played with larger groups.


The popularity of footvolley led to the creation of a professional league.  Official events were held primarily in Brazil until 2003, when the United States hosted an international competition.  The sport has since grown in many places around the world, especially where soccer is popular and beaches are plentiful.  Although it has a diverse group of international participants, the Footvolley World Cup (Mundial de Futevôlei) is often hosted in Brazil, where the sport was born.

Official footvolley matches are often designed for more aggressive play.  With lower nets and altered rules, fast-paced professional footvolley requires even greater skill than traditional play.  Nevertheless, the sport presents a distinct challenge in any form.  It is a unique application of soccer skills that also requires overall athleticism.  While still a growing sport, it is far from likely that those who have found footvolley will ever lose their taste for its one of a kind nature.


Sep 13



The Swiss are perhaps best known for remaining neutral.  With an official policy of neutrality in place since 1815, the country has avoided involvement in any military conflicts (with the exception of peace-keeping and aid missions) for the better part of two centuries.  However, the Swiss stance has never been one of weakness.  On the contrary, the nation has been able to maintain neutrality (even through both World Wars) largely because of its military force.

Although a relatively small European nation, Switzerland’s military forces number approximately 200,000.  This high number is achieved through mandatory military training for all men at the age of nineteen.  Those deemed fit for service (approximately 20,000 annually) receive up to twenty-one weeks of training.  Upon completion of this instruction, each man is required to keep the weapon and equipment issued to him in his home.

While this policy may seem unusual, it allows Swiss forces to mobilize in an incredibly short time.  The active military and its reserves can be combat-ready at only 24 to 48 hours’ notice.  Nevertheless, such readiness has only been required at three times in the nation’s history (two of which were in response to the start of the World Wars).  These mobilizations were all called in order to ensure Swiss neutrality.

Naturally, the strong military tradition in Switzerland has greatly influenced its culture.  Marksmanship is a highly prized skill among the Swiss, one that many continue striving to perfect even after their time in the military or reserves has ended.  Children are often exposed to firearms and shooting during their youth, and local target ranges (where membership of all military members was once required) have become community clubs, centers of socialization over a nationally shared interest.

The Swiss shooting culture has led to the creation of a national marksmanship competition, known as the Feldschiessen (German for “field shoot”).  Once a year, the Swiss go head-to-head (at the target range) with the latest military rifles.  While the Feldschiessen is primarily a friendly contest, the Swiss government has recognized its importance in encouraging the nation’s people to continue honing their shooting skills (and thereby their military readiness).  Therefore, to draw more participants, all ammunition for the event is provided free of charge by the government.

Shooters fire eighteen rounds at targets positioned three-hundred meters downrange.  Scores are ranked nationally by the Swiss Shooting Sports Federation, with prizes awarded to the most accurate marksmen.  Of course, with so many participants (at least 130,000 last year) only a few receive an award.  For most, the real benefit of participating in the Feldschiessen is the camaraderie that it builds among neighbors; young and old alike have the opportunity to bond over a strong tradition.


Despite the large number of firearms per capita in Switzerland, or perhaps because of it, the country has a relatively low crime rate.  Nevertheless, some citizens have begun calling for more gun control in Switzerland.  Proposals are always overturned by a strong majority, but a growing number of Swiss now see its military strength as unnecessary.  More than half of a century has passed since the last mobilization of Swiss forces, and the need for another is unlikely.  But the country still holds fast to its shooting tradition and the annual Feldschiessen.  Perhaps the purpose has shifted from military to social, but its importance undoubtedly remains.

Sep 13

Las Fallas

Valencia, Spain

File:Municipal 2013.jpg


The Spanish culture is deeply intertwined with religious traditions (the Catholic Church played a prominent role throughout much of the nation’s history).  As a result, many of the most notable holidays and celebrations in Spain are held in honor of religious figures.

Valencia, a Spanish city on the Mediterranean coast, is home to an annual festival in recognition of Saint Joseph.  Residents of the city spend the entire year preparing for the celebration, which lasts for five consecutive days.  Each neighborhood’s activities are orchestrated by a chosen leader, who takes responsibility for raising the funds that will finance the most important aspect of the festival: the neighborhood’s falla.

A falla is a large monument erected with cardboard and papier-mâché.  Firecrackers and other pyrotechnics are often included in its construction.  The ultimate purpose of a falla, the name of which is derived from the Latin word for “torch,” is to be burned.  Each year, at the culmination of the festival, the neighborhoods joyfully incinerate the result of their 360 days of preparation.

The celebrations, of course, include much more than the burning of fallas.  Each morning, brass bands play throughout the streets of Valencia to awaken its residents for the festivities.  Many of the neighborhood coordinators follow the bands, igniting firecrackers along the way to ensure that no one misses La Despertá (“the awakening”).  While many take to setting off their own fireworks during Las Fallas, every day also includes a professionally coordinated show during the afternoon.

The religious purpose of the festival is never forgotten in the midst of the explosions.  Although Las Fallas is dedicated to Saint Joseph, a great deal of emphasis is also placed on the city’s patron, Virgen de los desamparados (“Our Lady of the Forsaken”).  Residents bring flowers to a large statue of their Lady (which is not burned at the end of the celebrations), ultimately leaving her adorned from head to toe in their tributes.  Masses are held periodically, both in churches and in the streets.

File:La Geperudeta.jpg


On the evening of the final day of the festival, each neighborhood parades its falla to a designated location in the city.  The monuments are ignited throughout the night, and the burning fallas are accompanied by more firework displays across the city.  Fire crews are on constant watch to prevent the fires from spreading to permanent structures.


Visitors and tourists can enjoy many culinary traditions in addition to the cultural.  Vendors cook paella, a classic Spanish dish, in large pans over open fires.  This Spanish staple, often consisting of rice, seafood, and meat or chicken, is also sold at neighborhood dinners throughout the year as a way of raising money for the festival.

Although Las Fallas is a well-established tradition in Valencia, its origins are not entirely clear.  It is believed to have originated during the Middle Ages, and slowly evolved from burning scrap materials to wax dolls before it reached its current form.  Regardless of its history, Las Fallas remains a lively and unique festival, exhibiting Spain’s strong faith in a form entirely its own.

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