Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age

Burial of the Sardine – One of Spain’s weird festivals!


OK, so I implied a few posts back that I was a bit jaded on the subject of Carnaval.  Sunday’s parade in Los Cristianos had been impressive, and I enjoyed it, but there isn’t that tingle of excitement there any more for me.  Monday, however, was a whole other kettle of fish (***sorry about that***)!

In all the years of living here I’d never been to the Burial of the Sardine before,  maybe because the following day was a school day, and by the time the kids were older the shine had worn off.  So perhaps I enjoyed Monday so much because it was a novelty, or perhaps it was because it was more spontaneous and fun and more informal than the big parade.

Spain is known for its weird and wonderful ways of celebrating certain events, and often there is only the flimsiest idea of how some of these traditions began.  The Burial of the Sardine is no exception.  Why would a bunch of perfectly straight, often macho, guys dress up in fishnets, high heels and widow’s weeds, and parade themselves through town, bewailing (and take the “wailing” part of that literally!) the “death” of a giant, papier mache fish?

This year’s sardine, attended by a couple of “widows”.

So far as I can make out, putting together the different stories so that they make sense, this is what I came up with.  First off, you have to know that Carnaval represents the last blow out before Lent begins.  Lent being the 40 day period when Christians used to forgo meat.  These days it’s generally beer or chocolate people give up, if anything, but back when, they used to become pescatarian until Easter.  Tradition was that a side of pork was buried symbolically marking the beginning of Lent.  So, one year not on record, probably in the 18th Century in Madrid, due to the heat and the fact that Madrid is a fair distance from the coast, sardines which had been taken by the crowds attending the burial of the pork for their lunch, began to go very off, and had to be buried, before the stink got to be too much!

Twilight and the Fish prepares for the journey to meet its fate.

Fast forward a hundred years or so and a group of merry-making Madrileños decide to re-enact the Burial of the Sardines……. and the rest is history, these days it is tradition all over Spain to mark the end of Carnaval by burying a mock sardine.  That’s about as much as I knew Monday evening when I met my friends outside the Cultural Center of Los Cristianos.

The funeral procession was schedule to begin at 8, but when I arrived there were just a few curious tourists, and the odd “widow” hanging around.  I figured someone had forgotten about changing to daylight saving the day before, because clearly this was going to be  more fun in the dark.  Then again, remember, we are on “island time” here. As people began to turn up, it was clear that the fancy dress was more fun than professional – mostly guys, mostly wearing stockings and mini skirts and wigs, and each one funnier than the last, and many with what I will just describe as false phallic symbols!

Tradition has it that these “widows” dress in black with a touch of red, but some I guess were recycling last year’s carnaval costumes.  Miss Piggy, as you can see above, was attired in her traditional pink, and what you can’t see in this photo is the “thing” which dangled between her legs and touched the floor!  The guy below in glam mode looks as if he has borrowed his girlfriend’s dance costume …. nice contrast  with his hairy chest.

As darkness began to descend, the procession, headed by a “priest,” set off.  I thought that the “priest” was to give last rites to the sardine, but apparently he is also to “pardon” the sins of the masses committed during Carnaval…..and you can believe that  they are plenty!  Following the priest, a vehicle draped in red and black blared not so much the salsaof Carnaval, as disco music,  more wake than funeral.  Some maneuvering to get the giant fish onto the street and we were off, dodging between some very puzzled tourists as we tried to follow and take snaps, and stopping to buy beers en route.

We stayed with the fish, and it wasn’t long before a long gap appeared between the dance music and the “hearse”.  This was due to the frequent and loud mourning wails of the accompanying windows, who also lay in front of the catafalque from time to time waving their legs in the air, to the astonishment of the already bemused onlookers, and also due in no small measure to constant stops to hand out booze to soften their pain.  Basically, if you can lower your natural reserve enough to imagine being the midst of a bunch of seriously good-natured drunks intent on being really, really silly, that’s how it was.  It was a pain that I had a 20 minute drive home which meant I couldn’t drink that much, but it was fun to have a ringside seat!

It felt much more like being a part of the local community than simply standing, watching and admiring the Sunday Parade.  People often say that local carnavals don’t compare with Santa Cruz, claiming that they are staged largely for tourists, which is partly true, and there isn’t a problem with that, as I’ve said about different things before, we need the tourist euros, but Monday was just a real, let-your-hair-down, anything-goes occasion.  Of course, from the religious angle, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent were long-gone, but the spirit was still here!

Eventually, steering of the hearse having gotten much more erratic along the route through the main street of town, as the “widows” became more intoxicated, the merry cortege arrived at the beach, where an area had been set aside for the funeral pyre.  The quantity of tourists lining the promenade surprised me, because not too many had followed the procession, but they watched as the sardine was maneuvered into position in the center of the area, and, under the watchful eye of the Protección Civil, the last rites were pronounced, in the form of a good dousing with something  inflammable to provoke combustion when the torch was applied.  Suddenly flames burst from the sardine’s back, and I felt a bit sad that his jolly presence was soon going to give a whole new meaning to my idea of grilled sardines!

Once established that the fire was under control, the “widows” were allowed their final farewells, dancing around the fire, wailing and a last salute of waving legs.  It wasn’t long before all that remained was the skeleton……..and sins were forgiven, fasting became order of the day, and Carnaval was over for another year.

Author: IslandMomma

Aging with passion; travelling with curiosity; exploring islandlife, and trying to keep fit and healthy.

12 thoughts on “Burial of the Sardine – One of Spain’s weird festivals!

  1. It does seem a bit weird, though one thing I know about the Spanish is that they love their celebrations! They all look like they are having a wonderful time.

  2. One of the joys of living in Spain is that fun is taken “seriously”!!

  3. I haven’t never heard of this festival but it looks like one of the strangest festivals I’ve ever heard of and the costumes are interesting to say the least!

    • Oh the emphasis is definitely on the fun side of it. It’s very traditional for perfectly macho men to dress up in womens’ clothes at Carnaval time, especially for the Sardine. Usually also displaying a hairy chest or some stumble for effect! In fact the Panamanian consul had to resign this year, after photos of him in this kind of get-up were seen in Panama! Goodness knows what they were thinking! I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of Spain. Must go and take a look one day.

  4. What a shame I missed this and missed you but I wasn’t sure which was the best time of day to call you and I didn’t want to be a pest. However until tomorrow evening I am in Santa Cruz and that’s where I want to live if I move to the island. Just love it.

  5. Oh, for future reference it would have been okay almost any time. If I don’t want to be disturbed I just switch my phone off! And you most definitely wouldn’t have been a pest! Next time let me show you that there are some worthwhile things in the south :=) I wouldn’t get up to Santa Cruz until early afternoon tomorrow, so I don’t think we’ll get to meet up this time!

    I’m not surprised you liked Santa Cruz so much. I’d love to live there. My son does, and life is just so different. You can imagine how few people who come to the island actually bother to go there, unless they arrive on a cruise ship. Despite it having most of the advantages of a city, it’s also so easy to get out to the countryside too. Also at weekend it takes on that laidback kind of vibe which European cities used to have back in the days before Sunday openings etc

  6. There’s something fishy about that festival! (Just making you feel better about your ‘kettle of fish’ pun!) I wish, in the States, we had more occasion to celebrate life and all of its strangeness.

  7. Hello. I want to use this article for my case study 🙂

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