Burning Bright: A Procession of Fire on the National Mall
It’s one thing to watch the Falles del Pirineu (Torches from the Pyrenees) on video. It’s another to witness the spectacle in person.
During one evening of the Folklife Festival, the Falles del Pirineu illuminated the National Mall with a captivating procession of Catalonia’s age-old tradition. Led by Guillem Esteban, each fallaire (torchbearer) carried a burning pine tree trunk, known as a falla, forming one long fiery line. After walking about a half mile, the parade ended with the formation of one grand bonfire.
For the Catalans, however, the celebration had only just begun. Accompanied by music from Ivan Caro and Pilar Planavila, Festival participants and staff joined in for a sardana circle dance around the fire. It’s a custom of convivencia, which emphasizes a sense of community and togetherness. As the dancing came to a close, we sat admiring the roaring fire, wishing we could relive the moment again, but this time in the Pyrenees.
After the Festival, we talked with Marc Ballesté, who works for the Càtedra Educació i Patrimoni Immaterial del Pirineus, a center at the University of Lleida that studies and promotes the falles tradition. He shared with us his Festival experience and what it meant to present on the National Mall.
What were your expectations for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival?
The truth is we did not know what to expect at the Festival. We knew that it was a place where we could share our culture, Catalan culture, but besides that we really had no further expectations. I was a little bit worried how sharing our culture would go when we were so far from the normal context of fallaires, but I think it went very well.
How did you prepare for the Festival?
The first thing we did was contact the rest of the fallaire community, which includes many towns and associations throughout the Pyrenees. We wrote a letter to each town and association and explained what the Festival was and how we wanted each town’s traditions to be represented. The fallaire tradition varies from town to town, with each town having their own unique style of falles, so we asked each town to send us a prepared falla to have at the Festival.
Besides that we also contacted various authors who have written books on fallaires so we could showcase their books, which not only contain lots of information on the tradition, but also include pictures from the Pyrenees. Finally, we brought these miniature falles because they are very popular at our school presentations and we hoped the public would enjoy them.
How was the procession on the National Mall different from the ones in Catalonia?
Just like in the Pyrenees, we started with preparing and drying the falles. On the day of the festival in the Pyrenees, we would bring the falles to the top of the mountain and make a bonfire, called a “lighthouse,” which is used to light the falles. We made that first bonfire here, and then we lit the falles and walked down the center of the Mall one by one. On the Mall, we walked in a straight line, but in the Pyrenees, we make the shape of an “S.” Normally, when we walk down the mountain there is no music, only in the square, but here we thought it would be nice to add it.
When we reached the end of the Mall, we made a bonfire out of the falles, even though we didn’t have the main large falla. That was okay because there are other towns that just use the smaller falles. When the bonfire was made, we danced around it. First, we danced the Bolangera, a traditional dance that is done in the mountains, and after we danced more improvised dances. I think, even though we did not have the mountain, we managed to capture the spirt that lives in the towns and plazas of the Pyrenees on the night of San Juan.
What were some of your favorite moments?
I think that the night that we got to do the falles was my favorite part of the Festival. There was so much uncertainty over whether or not it would actually happen, then we finally got to do it and everything just came together. The falles burned well, we made bonfires both at the beginning and the end, we danced, and, despite not having a mountain, I think we managed to get pretty close to the real thing. Besides that, I also enjoyed getting to meet and work with so many interesting people. I really liked having the opportunity to learn more about other Catalan traditions.
What surprised you about the Festival?
I think I was most surprised by how curious the Festival visitors were. They weren’t afraid to ask questions. I think in Catalonia people are a little more timid and often don’t ask a lot of questions. It was different at the Festival. Both at our tent and at the Ateneu Exchange, people were super curious. It was nice to see how interested people were in our traditions!
Why was it important for you to present the fallaire tradition as part of the Festival?
This was a great opportunity not only to share Catalan culture, but also to show that there are parts of Catalan culture that are often forgotten. Even in Catalonia, the culture and traditions of the Pyrenees are often forgotten or overlooked in favor of better known traditions, like the castellers or the gegantes. It has been my pride and pleasure to share the fallaire tradition here at the Folklife Festival.
Caroline Diemer and Samantha Mason were both interns for the Catalonia program at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Diemer recently graduated from Wesleyan University where she majored in archaeology and the College of Letters, and Mason is a senior at Flagler College double majoring in history and international studies.