There is nothing like a Spanish fiesta. No country in the world celebrates as many so well. I remember seeing masked revelers dancing through the streets of Cádiz in Carnival, giant floats going up in flames during the springtime fallas in Valencia, young girls covered with flowers from head to toe during May festival in Almería, bonfires on the beach in Galicia for St. John's or Midsummer Night, the explosion of San Fermín that rocks Pamplona each year in the second week of July. Speaking of San Fermín, Hemingway said, "There is no other way to describe it."
The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote about the "fiesta sense of life." He believed that it developed from the primitive Dionysian mysteries, combining dance, sacred orgy and feast--that is to say, fiesta. Many Spanish celebrations include bullfights, in Ortega's view the most authentic survival of the ancient rites. These fiestas, like the old mysteries, may also involve sacrifice, blood, wine, dance, revelry and feasting. In them there is a breakdown or reversal of everyday norms and inhibitions, a freeing of the senses, a renewed sense of fellowship and identity with local, regional and national dimensions. After a true fiesta, life is never the same.
In Spain a good time, like a good bar, is always nearby. Foreigners are often surprised by the number of holidays, most of them tied to the old Church calendar. In the seventeenth century more than a third of the year was dedicated to obligatory feasts in certain towns and dioceses. More recently the stretching of the puente or "bridge"--to make long weekends out of fiestas that fall on workdays--sometimes gives the impression that the situation has not changed all that much.
What has changed is the nature of Spanish fiestas. Many church festivals have declined or disappeared. On the other hand some sacred holidays have taken on an almost entirely secular character, like the world-famous San Fermín and other lesser-known patronal feasts. Large segments of the population, especially young people and women, traditionally confined to the house, now revel right along with the adult males who used to dominate public space. Political decentralization and the establishment of the country's seventeen autonomous regions in 1978 have also brought "festive escalation," as these young governing bodies attempt to preserve and revitalize old festivals or invent new ones. Finally, mass tourism has changed some Spanish fiestas, both by the presence of outsiders and the reaction of natives, some of whom have created counterrituals to protect themselves from contamination in a general movement that I would call the return to tradition.