With relaxed COVID rules, Barcelona embrace the return of the festival | Wire Ap

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Crowds gathered in historic downtown Barcelona to watch in awe and take cellphone photos as teams of colorfully dressed people formed human towers soaring into the air like the spiers of the nearby medieval cathedral.

A giant figure in bright blue robes and a floral crown marched through the streets as a representation of Saint Eulàlia, the city’s patroness, a 13-year-old girl who was crucified by the Romans in the early 4th century for refusing to renounce Christianity.

After two years of celebrations canceled or muted due to the pandemic, this Mediterranean city pulled out all the stops last weekend to mark the February 12 feast, or “festa” in Catalan, of its most famous patron.

With the last national outdoor mask mandate lifted by the government a few days earlier, the people of Barcelona were particularly eager to revel in the three-day “festes de Santa Eulàlia”, with celebrations that make social distancing impossible and require choreography and thorough training.

Celebrated with a specific protocol since the 1600s, the holiday has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since the early 1980s. It includes solemn masses, intricate dances and parades of “giants”, larger-than-life historical and fantasy figures. , usually made of papier-mâché and worn by partygoers.

Although rooted in the Catholic liturgy, the festival is today above all a secular expression of pride and shared cultural identity in the region of Catalonia, in the northeast of Spain, celebrated with passion even if the most participants do not identify as believers.

“The resurgence started with ordinary people who wanted to do something that would be their own, belonging to Barcelona,” said Nil Rider, a historian who helped organize an exhibition on Saint Eulàlia at the Cathedral’s Diocesan Museum. “It’s a living heritage that gives people an identity.”

Foremost among the traditions of the festival are the ‘castells’, or ‘castles’, as the human towers are called, which have been played for two centuries by neighborhood bands not only in Barcelona but at local festivals across Catalonia. .

Dozens of “castellers,” or group members, stand tight against each other, pressing every inch of their bodies against each other to form a base. The progressively lighter limbs then rise to establish six or more human levels until they form support for the top performer, a young child wearing a mandatory helmet – and, this year, a KN95 face mask.

“What we love is succeeding in a challenge that we can only overcome together. It’s very identity-based,” said Dan Esteban, a casteller and former leader of the group representing the Poble Sec neighborhood, just outside the medieval core.

Two years of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns in hard-hit Spain left people without practice, and Esteban said the band were unable to train at all until September. Even now, fewer people than usual are showing up for the bi-weekly sessions, which are crucial for everyone to work together, as moving an inch can bring the whole structure down.

Cristina Velasco also worried about regaining lost ground as she planned this year’s ‘correfoc’, another traditional element of the festival in which adults and children parade in horned devil costumes alongside rotating fireworks . Sunday evening would be the first full parade since the pandemic, with fewer children participating as some turned to other activities and did not return.

“We feel like we have to do it because otherwise we’re going to lose it,” said Velasco, who has been dressing up as the devil for 30 years and is president of the city’s federation of three dozen neighborhood correfoc groups.

Teaching young people about the allegorical and historical origins of the correfoc tradition is vital, she says, even though “99% of people don’t even know where the devil comes from.”

Clutching a statuette of Saint Eulàlia, 10-year-old Laia Castro patiently queued in a cold drizzle to enter the majestic Gothic cathedral on Saturday, the day the saint’s martyrdom is commemorated. Descending into the crypt where the remains of the saint have been venerated since the 1330s, she signed a register kept in the sacristy for the girls named with the common diminutive of Eulalia.

“Really, we are not religious, but we love this celebration,” said her father, Albert Castro.

He hopes Laia will know the saint’s story and then make her own decision about faith: “And if she believes, she will know that she has done something more today.”

The Reverend Robert Baró Cabrera, director of cultural heritage at the cathedral, said the festival’s focus on identity and devotion to the saint provides “a powerful environment for evangelization” even as secularism continues to grow.

“Our churches are both cultural and identity references,” he said. “If people want to find the roots of their identity, they can’t help but go to church.”

In one of the festival’s most evocative celebrations, a performer carrying a giant eagle figure with flowering branches in its beak marched Friday night from City Hall through the Old Quarter, accompanied by drums, bagpipes and flutes.

Arriving at the imposing Gothic Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, built where Saint Eulàlia was first buried after her martyrdom, the eagle entered the crowded but silent sanctuary and proceeded to pirouette past the altar in a six-century-old ritual.

In attendance were Loli García and her 4-year-old granddaughter, Ona, whom she brought to teach her their roots and culture.

“It’s one thing not to be religious, but they have to know the history,” García said as Ona stood on a bench and watched, fascinated. “I take her to all the traditional Catalan parties, like I did with my daughter.”

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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