Corpus Christi Feast in Spain. La Patum de Berga in Catalonia is a 5 day celebration based on the religious festival of the feast of Corpus Christi.
Berga is a northern Catalonian town of 17,000 that sits protected from the north wind by the Pyrenees. Although the town has textile, metal and wood industries, it is perhaps best known for a 500 year old local tradition called La Patum.
La Patum, likely named after the sound of drums and firecrackers, began towards the end of the 14th century and has been extensively documented since 1525. It is a 5 day celebration based on the religious festival of the feast of Corpus Christi. Festivities begin on the Wednesday before the Feast of Corpus Christi and they end the following Sunday.
This religious festival first appeared in the 13th century and was universalized by Pope Juan XXII in 1316, effectively assimilating into Catholic Church doctrine spring time pre-Christian festivals which celebrated the yearly rebirth of nature in the end of May. The new celebration placed a clear focus on church doctrine and education.
The festival originally included a series of “entremeses”, or short plays, performed around the procession of the Corpus Christi. The purpose of these plays was to instill biblical morality on crowds of procession observers, although over time the entremeses would lose their churchly character to take on a purely festive spirit. The result was the emergence of a double celebration: the Procession and the “Bullicio del Santísimo Sacramento”, the latter of which would go on to become today’s Patum.
Although the Patum is technically limited to the five days surrounding the Corpus, there are also preliminary events that take place three weeks earlier on days such as Ascension Sunday, in which the Tabal (a person who carries a large kettledrum) announces the coming festivities. Two weeks later on Trinity Sunday, gigantes (costumed figures of giants) will accompany the Tabal who repeats the announcement. In Berga, it is said that any bergadán (Berga native) who happens to be out of town on Ascension Sunday, only need place their ear near the ground to hear the sound of the Tabal’s drum, regardless of the distance that separates out of towners from home.
The Corpus Christi Festival in Berga
The Patum Festival includes a number of other interesting features:
Turcos y caballitos
These are four agarenos (participants representing Moslems, wearing historic clothing and carrying shiny swords) who stage a battle with participants representing Christians.
This is a group of devils who carry sticks that end in a long fuse (called el fuet) which shoots sparks. When the fuse burns to the end and the stick explodes, the devil falls “dead on the ground. The dance continues until all the devils have fallen.
These are two dragons that spit fire on those around them. Traditionally, the Guita grossa (big Guita) appeared solo, but since the end of the 19th century, he has been joined by the Guita boiga, a slightly smaller version of the big Guita.
For many, this is the most important part of the Patum. L’Áliga (Catalan for eagle) is a majestic symbol wearing a crown and bearing the shield of Berga. The dance of the Aliga is an exciting performance, where the rhythm crescendos in speed until the dance concludes with the performer spinning in a dizzying display of vibrant tradition.
Els Nans Vells
Costumed figures of large heads. In Spanish “los cabezudos viejos”, or old costumes of large heads, these festival participants wearing the Nans Vells dance the waltz while playing castanets. They are also joined in dance by els nans nous (the new large heads).
Two couples of gigantes dance together and attract the attention of all the children. Measuring several meters in height, these costumed figures are an imposing sight.
Countless demons covered in fresh grass to protect them from the fireworks only appear at night, when they go wild lighting off particularly loud firecrackers.
This is a dance in which all of the Patum’s different characters come together in dance, drawing festivities to a close. The event ends with all visitors, which number in the thousands, dancing arm in arm with the Tabal, the Guitas, and the Gigantes in a final performance that goes on for hours.
In summary, the four main elements for enjoying the Patum are: following the instructions of the veteran festival goers to avoid ending up in any dangerous places, wearing old clothes that can handle the shower of sparks and fireworks, wear a hat to protect your head and some kind of a handkerchief to protect your face. Finally, enjoy in moderation the festival’s traditional beverage called barreja (a mix of anisette and muscatel wine).
So remember, on the next Feast Day of Corpus Christi, make sure you head to Catalonia to check out this fiesta that has earned the title of “Untangible Heritage Treasure of Spain”.