Las Fallas de Valencia: Spain’s Annual Festival of Fire

A falla depicting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy engulfed in flames.

David Ramos / Getty Images

Las Fallas de Valencia is an annual springtime festival in Valencia, Spain, which takes place from March 15 to March 19, ending on the feast day of St. Joseph. The festival’s origins are rooted in Iberian pagan equinox celebrations, but much of the festival has adopted Catholic meanings in the centuries since its conception. 

Firework displays, live music, and traditional costumes feature prominently in Las Fallas celebrations, but the true focal point of the festival is the hundreds of towering cartoonish monuments that fill the streets of Valencia. On the final night of Las Fallas, these monuments are ceremoniously set ablaze and burned to the ground.

Fast Facts: Las Fallas de Valencia

Las Fallas de Valencia is an annual celebration of the coming of spring, celebrated by burning artistic monuments in the tradition of ancient Valencian carpenters. The festival also includes street parties, parades, and ornate 18th Century costumes.

  • Key Players/Participants: Falleras and Falleros, or members of neighborhood groups. Each neighborhood group is called a Falla.
  • Event Start Date: March 15 (annual)
  • Event End Date: March 19 (annual)
  • Location: Valencia, Spain

Origins 

Las Fallas de Valencia features a combination of elements that have been added to the ancient tradition of welcoming the springtime. Over the centuries, the festival has transitioned into a massive celebration and tourist attraction that brings at least one million visitors to Valencia every year. Las Fallas was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2016.

Pre Christianity

The term "Las Fallas" refers to the elaborate monuments that are made and then burnt during the festival. According to local legend, Las Fallas emerged from the spring cleaning practices of pre-Christian Iberian carpenters. During winter, these craftsmen would construct parots, wooden beams with torches which allowed them to continue their work with fewer daylight hours. To mark the transition from winter to spring, the carpenters would clear their warehouses of the parots, piling them up and burning them in the streets.

Though no records of these early years exist, traditional folklore tells the story of carpenters competing for the biggest bonfire. The competition mounted, drawing in neighborhood support, and soon the carpenters were crafting shapes and characters out of wood and papier-mâché. These characters would eventually become the towering monuments that adorn the streets of contemporary Valencia during Las Fallas.

The first recorded documentation of Las Fallas, a municipal decree prohibiting the burning of these monuments in the narrow streets of the city, dates back to March 1740. The contents of the document indicate that a tradition had already been established.

Catholicization

Before the 15th Century, Spain was a collection of kingdoms loosely tied together by Catholicism in the north and Islam in the south. Valencia was once ruled by Spain's historic hero El Cid. The marriage of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I united the Kingdom of Castile in the north and the Kingdom of Aragon in the south, establishing the Kingdom of Spain. The new kingdom was unified under the Roman Catholic Church, and pagan traditions and festivals began to adopt Catholic elements. For example, Las Fallas de Valencia celebration concludes on March 19th, the feast day of St. Joseph.

Raising the Fallas      

The humble celebration of the Iberian working class has transformed over the centuries into an event funded and facilitated by the wealthiest Valencian families. The neighborhood committee, also called fallas, now collects membership dues, commissions artists, and hosts verbenas, street parties that continue all night. 

These influential community members can be identified by their matching neighborhood falla group jackets with their names emblazoned across the front, or by their traditional 18th Century handmade costumes.

Falleras and Falleros

A fallera dressed in traditional 18th Century clothing
 McKenzie Perkins 

The Valencians that don the traditional costumes are called falleras and falleros. The hand stitched dresses and tight hairstyles that feature prominently on Valencian women, young and old, are one of the most widely recognized features of Las Fallas de Valencia.

Sourced from China, the silk for these traditional dresses was initially brought back through Filipino and Latin American colonies, across the Atlantic and into Spanish ports. Contemporary fallera dresses are typically one of a kind, with prices starting at €2,000 and reaching €15,000 and beyond ($2,250–$17,000).

Each neighborhood falla committee selects one adult, a fallera mayor, and one child, a fallera mayor infantil, to represent the neighborhood. The community-wide fallera mayor and fallera mayor infantil are chosen from this pool of falleras. The responsibilities of these women extend beyond Las Fallas, as they make public appearances and speeches at all major religious and cultural events in Valencia over the course of the year.

Fallas Structures 

Fallas are made from wood and Styrofoam
McKenzie Perkins  

Commissioned annually by neighborhood falla committees, the towering structures—also called fallas, from which the festival takes its name—take 12 months to design and build. Contemporary fallas reach as high as 30 feet and get larger and more elaborate every year. Fallas are constructed out of wooden scaffolding and covered in a combination of cardboard, papier-mâché, and polystyrene foam (Styrofoam). The foam is sanded down into shapes and characters and painted in vibrant colors.

While every falla will burn on the final night of Las Fallas de Valencia, one smaller falla, called a ninot, from the winning falla collection is selected to be placed in the Fallas Museum. Winners are determined by a City Hall committee.

Fallas typically take on the shape of medieval or modern characters, usually to illustrate a political or satirical message. In recent years, fallas have featured prominent figures such as United States Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush, former Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont, and contemporary popular culture figures like Lady Gaga and Shrek.

Events of Las Fallas de Valencia

Although the official celebration is held March 15–19, events begin as early as the final Sunday of February and extend until the early hours of March 20th.        

La Crida

On the final Sunday of February, the Valencian community gathers in front of the Torres Serranos, the medieval city gates, to hear speeches by the mayor of the city, the Fallera Mayor, and the Fallera Mayor Infantil. The night concludes with the first official firework display of Las Fallas.

Fireworks: Mascleta and Nit del Foc

Fireworks during the Nit del Foc
 Sarah Mendez / Getty Images 

Beginning on March 1, crowds gather in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to see the Mascleta, a fireworks show that occurs daily at 2:00 p.m. from March 1–March 19. The displays are approximately eight minutes long, starting relatively slowly and ending with a terremoto, or an earthquake, of hundreds of cannons releasing fireworks simultaneously. As a daytime firework exhibition, Mascleta is more of an audio experience than a visual one, but at least one Mascleta every year features plumes of color.

Officially, nighttime fireworks occur on weekend nights in March leading up to Las Fallas and every night during the festival, but unofficially, individual firework displays light up the city skies for weeks. The officially sanctioned pyrotechnical exhibitions take place in Plaza del Ayuntamiento or in the Turia riverbed park, just below the Puente del Aragon.

The most exceptional firework exhibition occurs on the Nit del Foc, or the night of fire, as a welcome to the final day of the celebration.

La Ofrenda de Flores

The scaffolding of the Virgin Mary
David Ramos / Getty Images 

On March 17 and 18, falleras dressed in their traditional 18th century clothing parade from all the neighborhoods in the Valencian Community, each carrying flowers to offer to the Virgin Mary.

A wooden scaffolding of the Virgen de Los Desemparados—the Virgin Mary of the Helpless, the protector of Valencia—is erected in the Plaza de La Virgen, beside the Valencia Cathedral. Each bunch of flowers offered by the falleras is strategically placed within the scaffolding. By the end of the offering, the Virgen’s dress is entirely made up of the white and red flowers.

The parades last until well after midnight on both nights of La Ofrenda, bringing in thousands falleras and falleros from everywhere in the Valencian Community. After the completion of the offering, the scaffolding, complete with the flower dress, is paraded through the city and returned to the Plaza da La Virgen, where she sits in front of the cathedral and the basilica as a guardian of the city.

A relatively new practice, La Ofrenda was officially established in 1945, and the first wooden scaffolding of the Virgen to hold the bouquets of flowers was erected in 1949.

St. Joseph’s Feast Day

The feast day of St. Joseph honors the earthly father of Jesus Christ on the final day of Las Fallas de Valencia, paying homage to St. Joseph as the patron saint of carpenters. 

La Crema

A falla burns during La Crema in 2018
 McKenzie Perkins 

After the sun sets on March 19, the skyline of Valencia lights up as the falleras mayores ignite the fallas, and the crowd watches as the structures turn to ash. The burnings start around 10:00 p.m., though the falla located in Plaza del Ayuntamiento is not burned until after 1:00 a.m. 

Contemporary Problems

Smoke fills the sky over Plaza del Ayuntamiento
Xaume Olleros / Getty Images 

As Las Fallas de Valencia has grown in popularity amongst tourists, the city of Valencia has struggled to maintain the infrastructure that protects the most treasured and historic part of the city. As of 2019, residents have filed official complaints against the degradation of historical monuments with both the city and UNESCO, which designated La Lonja de La Seda as a protected World Heritage Site.

Additionally, air pollution from burning polystyrene foam has promoted neighborhood falla committees to consider returning to tradition construction materials of wood and papier -mâché.