Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Patum in Berga – Catalonia on Fire in its Strangest ‘Festa’

Catalonia's most spectacular Corpus Christi celebration takes place in Berga. It is not even known as Corpus longer but as La Patum – an onomatopoeic description of the sound of the drum which sets the pace for this event, so unique that it has been included on UNESCO's list of the immaterial heritage humanity.

Patum is also a good example of how the Catalan Corpus traditions ever since the late Middle Ages have got more of a popular than religious touch. Sources reveal that in 1525 the people of Berga had begun to distinguish the Catholic Corpus procession from the folk festival, Bulla. The latter consisted of short performances which depicted the struggle between good and evil, for example, personalised through, for example, the archangel and the devil. Bulla quickly gained popularity and since the celebrations could be quite turbulent, the church on several occasions tried to ban it.

Bulla is thus the background to the elements we now associate with Patum. The main ingredient is a series of short performances - intermezzos (entremesos in Catalan) – carried out by various groups (comparses) from Thursday to Sunday in week of Corpus Christi. They follow a fixed order, repeated year after year: It starts with a man with a big drum (Tabal) after which follows the dance Turcs i Cavallets (a local version of the struggle between Christians and Arabs, cristians i moros). Hereafter we have the first appearances of fire and firecrackers: Maces - where devils dance under fire - and the two monsters Guita grossa and Guita xica (Catalan mules (mules), but here with long giraffe necks). Then the turn comes to well-known characters as the Eagle (Aliga), big-heads (Nans vells and Nans nous) and the town’s giants (Gegants vell and Gegants nous) . It is all rounded off through the joint dance tirabols which historically was the only moment when the spectators were allowed to mix with the performers, something which happens all the time nowadays.

Personally, I am extremely happy for having taken the time to experience La Patum this year. Last Thursday, I saw La Patum de lluïment which gave me a good overview while the square where everything takes place, plaça de Sant Pere, was full of people in a way with which even most Swedes feel comfortable.

But it was only last Sunday evening, with La Patum completa in twilight and darkness, that I really grasped why this festival has become such a strong symbol for the Catalan folk culture. Watching the whole square, absolutely packed with people, sing along with the music and dance around is totally amazing, not only when l'Aliga or les guites move around rapidly and quite literally draw lines in the crowd.

My strongest emotions, however, came with the highlight (performed only at night, not during the Patum de lluïment): Salt the plens. This intermezzo consists of exactly one hundred people dancing around in thick helmets on top of which a strong fire is burning. The name plens stems from the fact that they are indeed full of fire - plens the foc. While I stood there dancing, in the heat and the thick smoke, I felt downright crazily Catalan.

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