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Entierro de la Sardina

Burial of the Sardine

Entierro de la Sardina. The Spanish fiesta El Entierro de la Sardina is one of the most popular celebrations during the Carnivals in Spain.

February is the month for Carnival in Spain and other countries in Latin America. Spaniards, who love dressing up and looking for reasons to have a good party, celebrate the most famous February carnivals in Tenerife and Cádiz while most cities and towns celebrate with their own traditional and unique twists. Carnival in Spain ends on the Tuesday before Miércoles de Ceniza (Ash Wednesday) which is the final day before the start of the Catholic Cuaresma (Lent), a 40 day observance that includes fasting and abstinence.

The Burial of the Sardine

In some parts of Spain and Latin America, on Ash Wednesday, an unusual ceremony called El Entierro de la Sardina (literally, the burial of the sardine) takes place. A large number of people get together to observe a centuries old annual tradition of burying a dead fish (or the likeness of one). This ceremony is based on the belief of burying, symbolically, our past in the hopes of creating a better and more fruitful future. The first image of this “burial” was painted by Spanish painter Francisco de Goya in an oil painting called, “El Entierro de la Sardina”, dated between 1812 and 1819.

This satirical ceremony simulates a burial procession of a sardine (real or fake), which gets solemnly paraded around the city streets in a coffin. Men and women dress up in black period costume clothes, with men sometimes daring to dress up as weeping widows with the typical black Spanish lace veil covering their heads. The sardine is the symbol of the past (a “liberating period”), while its death and burial represent the end of carnival season and the beginning of the religious fasting period as well as the possibility of rejuvenation and rebirth. People “mourn” their feelings of sadness over the ending of this festive season and how it implies the beginning of staunch religious observance.

In Madrid, the procession is headed by a person dressed up as a public official, and whose role consists of clearing the streets ahead of the procession to allow the passing of the carnival carriage. He is followed by revelers dressed as a priest, the priest's young assistant and the people charged with moving the funeral carriage. The wooden carriage is adorned with palms, flowers and other offerings including the sardine resting in its interior. The widow follows, confessing her “sins” to the priest and lamenting the death of the sardine with theatrical screams and weeping. Along the way someone dressed up as the Devil tries to prevent the passage of the sardine by trying to abduct it, but a group of “policemen” scare the devil away and maintain order among the procession attendees. When the sardine's carriage reaches its destination it is cremated while the crowd celebrates.

Origin of this Carnival Tradition

There are a few theories as to the origin of this tradition, yet no one seems to know for sure which one is true. One of these theories dates back to the XVII century, when Charles III, King of Spain, who wanted to celebrate the end of carnival with the commoners. He ordered that sardines and wine were to be served at a countryside picnic. The weather that day was hot, very typical at the time of year, and the sardines began to smell due to the heat. Of course, with such a horrible smell permeating the air, everyone wanted the smell removed and realized the only way to do it was to bury them in the ground. After they were interred, the crowd wept at the thought of no longer getting free food and having to begin the pre-Easter period of abstinence.

Another theory goes that when Lent was dutifully observed by all, a small butchered pig or cerdina (cerdina is a diminutive of cerdo which is pig in Spanish) was buried on the first day of Lent in representation of the food they would have to sacrifice eating during this period. Because communication was transmitted orally, cerdina became sardina as the tradition passed on to other parts of the country.

Like many traditions in Spain, this peculiar festival is celebrated in different ways depending on where you are but the essence of the fiesta remains the same. A time of sacrifice and restraint is undertaken with a good natured sense of humor and an optimistic belief that the world can always be made a better place.