Thursday, 19 February 2009

ENG: The Carnival of Vilanova – What Makes It Unique?

The carnival celebrations in Vilanova i la Geltrú can be traced back at least some 300 years and the tradition is as strong as ever. Since most activities are local in their character and lack Brazilian influences, Vilanova’s carnaval is the only one taken up on the Generalitat’s list of traditional festivities of national (i.e. Catalan) interest.

If we look back a hundred years, we will find out that carnival dinners and dances were typically organized by different societies and reserved for their members. Some of these were social and cultural associations which exist still today – eg. the Foment Vilanoví and El Coro (nowadays l’Unió Vilanovina) while others were related to the trades – eg. the confraria dels pescadors (the fishermen’s brotherhood).

Now that is exactly how the carnaval de Vilanova is built up still today. The number of carnival societies has multiplied as the town has grown – to the historical ones we can add those of sports clubs and others which only exist for the sake of the carnival – but the parties which they organize are private.

Historically, these carnival societies used to take part in public activities every day of the carnival week but the peak has always been on the Sunday. To the 300.000 people who come here to watch on this day, this is the guerra de caramels (the candy war), but in its core it is a competition between the comparses of the carnival societies in making themselves seen and heard and, above all, having the most fun.

I have learnt that the tradition to throw candy on the spectators comes from the people who returned to the coastal towns of Catalonia after having made it rich at sugar plantations in Cuba. On the diumenge de les comparses these so called indians would show off their wealth by throwing almonds and small coins to the poorer people who looked at them while they partied in the streets.

During the Spanish Civil War, Vilanova stopped celebrating the carnival and to take up the tradition afterwards became a challenge. The carnival had always been known for its satiric and erotic streaks, neither of which was particularly appreciated by Franco - especially not if people were allowed to hide behind masks. Since Spain was a dictatorship, the easy solution was to forbid the phenomenon, which also happened from 1937 until 1956. However, in Vilanova, where the carnival benefited from having its roots in private societies, to offend against the ban became a symbol in vindication of a Catalan identity; ‘el carnaval del poble’.

Like other Catalan towns, Vilanova changed the official name to “fiesta mayor del invierno”, but here the dates of the festivities always coincided with the last week before Lent. By 1954, the Foment Vilanoví recuperated the comparses on the Sunday and step by step did people become braver in using the carnival as an excuse for expressing their minds. However, an article about the carnival in the Diari de Vilanova from 1975 – published only nine months before Franco’s death – reveals that the police continued to monitor all celebrations in public places but that, that time, they did not intervene since the satiric comments had stayed within “reasonable limits”.

One year later, a new era began in Spain and since then Vilanova has revived the old festive ingredients like the arrival of the Carnival King (l‘arrivo del rei Carnestoltes) the Vilanova dances and the funeral of a sardine (l’enterro).

Que surts a la comparsa?” ("Are you in any comparsa?", in a free translation) is a question which I have received quite a few times during the last week. Coming Sunday, as many as 6.000 couples will dance to the march la Turuta and other tunes as they prepare themselves for the guerres de caramels, so when I answer that my wife still do not, our friends are surprised. Our excuse is simple - we prefer to enjoy this day together with our children rather than to leave them with a baby sitter. But who knows, by next year our youngest one might be old enough to cope with a long day of partying. After all, to fully enjoy the carnival of Vilanova you must not watch, but participate.

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The sources of this entry are articles from Vilanova Digital by Joan Ingasi Gómez i Barrera, Miguel Ángel Gonzales Alaya and Eulalia Sòria, the official Carnaval de Vilanova web-page and

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Technorati tags: Carnival, Catalonia, Festa, Garraf, Penedès, Spain, Vilanova

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