Crowds gathered in Barcelona’s historic downtown to watch in awe and snap cellphone photos as teams of people in colorful garb formed human towers rising into the air like the spires on the nearby medieval cathedral.
A giant figure in bright blue dress and a floral crown paraded through the streets in representation of St. Eulàlia, the city’s patron, a 13-year-old girl who was crucified by Romans in the early fourth century for refusing to renounce Christianity.
After two years of canceled or muted celebrations due to the pandemic, this Mediterranean city went all-out this past weekend to mark the February 12 feast, or “festa” in the Catalan language, of its longest-celebrated patron.
With the most recent nationwide outdoor mask mandate lifted by the government just days earlier, Barcelonans were especially eager to revel in the three-day “festes de Santa Eulàlia,” with celebrations that make social distancing impossible and require painstaking choreography and training.
Celebrated with a specific protocol since the 1600s, the festival has been gaining renewed popularity since the early 1980s. It includes solemn Masses, intricate dances and parades of “gegants,” larger-than-life historical and fantasy figures usually made of papier mâché and borne by revelers.
While rooted in Catholic liturgy, today the festival is primarily a secular expression of pride and shared cultural identity in the Catalonia region in northeastern Spain, passionately celebrated even if most who take part don’t 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 exhibit about St. Eulàlia at the cathedral’s Diocesan Museum. “This is living heritage that gives people an identity.”
Foremost among the festival’s traditions are the “castells,” or “castles,” as the human towers are called, which have been performed for two centuries by neighborhood groups not only in Barcelona but in local festivals across Catalonia.
Dozens of “castellers,” or group members, stand packed tightly together, compressing every inch of their bodies into each other to form a base. Progressively lighter-weight members then climb up to establish six or more human tiers until they form a support for the top performer, a young child wearing a mandatory helmet — and, this year, a KN95 face mask.
“What we like is to achieve a challenge that we only are able to do together. It’s very identity-forming,” said Dan Esteban, a casteller and former head of the group representing the neighborhood of Poble Sec, just outside the medieval core.
Two years of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns in hard-hit Spain have left people out of practice, and Esteban said the group wasn’t able to train at all until September. Even now fewer people than usual show up for twice-weekly sessions, which are crucial for getting everyone to work in concert since budging just an inch can bring the entire structure crashing down.
Cristina Velasco also worried about recovering lost ground as she planned for this year’s “correfoc,” another traditional element of the festival in which adults and children parade in horned devil costumes alongside spinning fireworks displays. Sunday night’s would be the first full parade since the pandemic, with fewer children taking part as some turned to other activities and haven’t returned.
“We have the feeling we have to do it because otherwise we will lose it,” said Velasco, who has been dressing up as a devil for 30 years and is president of the city’s federation of three-dozen neighborhood correfoc groups.
Teaching youngsters the allegorical and historic origins of the correfoc tradition is vital, she said, even if “99% of people don’t even know where the devil came from.”
Clutching a statuette of St. Eulàlia, 10-year-old Laia Castro, 10, waited patiently in line under a chilly drizzle to enter the majestic Gothic cathedral Saturday, the day commemorating the saint’s martyrdom. Descending into the crypt where the saint’s remains have been venerated since the 1330s, she signed a registry kept in the sacristy for girls named with the common diminutive for Eulàlia.
“Really we’re not religious, but we like this celebration,” said her father, Albert Castro.
He hopes for Laia to know the saint’s history and then make her own decision about faith: “And if she believes, she will know she did something extra today.”
The Rev. Robert Baró Cabrera, director of the Cathedral’s cultural heritage patrimony, said the festival’s spotlight on identity and devotion to the saint offers “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 into the church.”
In one of the festival’s most evocative celebrations, a performer bearing a giant eagle figure with flowering branches in its beak paraded Friday night from city hall through the old quarter, accompanied by drums, bagpipes and flutes.
Arriving at the soaring Gothic basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, built where St. Eulàlia was first buried after her martyrdom, the eagle entered the packed but hushed sanctuary and proceeded to pirouette in front of the altar in a six-century-old ritual.
On hand were Loli García and her 4-year-old granddaughter, Ona, whom she brought to teach her about 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 pew and watched, spellbound. “I take her to all traditional Catalan celebrations, as I used to do with my daughter.”