Before moving to Barcelona, I used to think Americans holidayed more than any other culture. Always a party, always a get together, always some reason to celebrate!
And while that is certainly true and one of my favorite things about being American, the Spanish are in a whole different category when it comes to holidays or festivals.
It seems like every two weeks our children are off from school for one holiday or another. Most of which I had never heard of before living here. It was so confusing the first year of our expat assignment.
Who are we celebrating?
Why are we celebrating?
Are there decorations I should be hanging up?
Do we need to make any special plans or shop for anything specific?
It was all so foreign to this Halloween loving, Christmas indulging, Super Bowl celebrating American family! But what I’ve come to notice about each Spanish holiday is the emphasis on tradition, family and celebration.
These holidays or festivals are deeply rooted, sometimes religious, and always important to the locals. It’s something I admire and wanted to shed some light on, especially if you plan to visit Barcelona during these times of year.
6 Barcelona Holidays You’ve Never Heard Of
Festa de Santa Eulalia (February)
The Santa Eulalia festivities also known as Laia or Barcelona’s winter festival, are held every year around February 12 to honor this saint, who is said to protect and guide Barcelona.
While most people know it simply as ‘Barcelona Cathedral’, the famous church is in fact called the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulàlia in honor of her dedication to the Christian faith. She was eventually tortured and killed for her refusal to abandon this faith.
The festivities of this holiday have remained a local celebration with a traditional feel, no high-tech animations or modern parties. Instead, the celebrations feature the most authentic of Catalan traditions such as sardana dancing, correfoc fire runs and human pyramids.
The sardana dance is considered the national dance of Catalonia and a symbol of unity amongst the people. Men and women together hold hands in a circle and tap their feet to festive music.
Sant Jordi (April 23)
Come February, several store windows are decorated in red and pink to signify the coming of Valentine’s Day. But actually, the most romantic day of the year in Catalonia is not Valentine’s Day, but Sant Jordi. Otherwise known as St George’s Day (the patron saint of Barcelona), Sant Jordi began in 1926 and is based on a popular legend adopted throughout Catalonia.
The story is that in the region of Montblanc there was a fierce dragon terrorizing the city and it’s people. To satisfy the dragon’s hunger, the royal princess was given to be sacrificed. Upon entering the dragon’s cave, the princess spotted a brave knights who ultimately slayed the dragon and rescued her. (Feminists are rolling their eyes, I know!)
From the blood that flowed from the dragon’s body was born a red rose which the knight handed to the princess. It is customary on April 23 that men give away roses to women and the women give men a book, remembering the death and burial respectively of two great European literary personalities, Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare.
In Barcelona’s most visited street, La Rambla, and all over Catalonia, thousands of stands of roses and makeshift bookstalls are set up for the occasion. By the end of the day, some six million roses and 800,000 books will have been purchased. Most women will carry a rose in hand, and half of the total yearly book sales in Catalonia take place on this occasion.
Primavera Sound Festival (June)
Not technically a holiday, but it may as well be hailed as one! This popular week long music festival presents all genres including pop, rock and the most underground tendencies of electronic and dance music. The annual event draws in crowds totaling nearly 200,000 people and although it began in 2000 as a small one day festival at the Poble Espanol, has grown immensely and required a new location.
The current day spot for Primavera Sound is at the Parc del Forum in the Sant Marti district of Barcelona. And as the festival has grown in size, it has also adapted a more modern approach to the traditionally male-dominated stage. In 2019, the festival made the decision to move towards a gender-neutral performance line-up including artists like Cardi B, Carly Rae Jepson, Erykah Badu and Miley Cyrus.
In 2020, the Primavera Sound will celebrate its 20 Anniversary and tickets are already on sale starting at 195 euros!
Sant Joan (June 23/24)
The biggest night of the year is undoubtedly Sant Joan, or Summer Solstice. For two days in June, thousands of firecrackers, rockets and other pyrotechnics (so many that the festival has developed a reputation for totally disregarding EU safety regulations!) salute the shortest night of the year. It is essentially a celebration to welcome Summer – and who can blame anyone for that?!
Once the sun goes down sangria, calimocho and cerveza flows in abundance. The idea is that on the night of Sant Joan (referred to as Nit del Foc or “Night of Fire” in Catalan), the sun reaches its highest point before beginning to drop. The sun is seen as a symbol of fertility and wealth, and so it must be given strength. The strength is provided by bonfires and fireworks lit throughout the city.
God, I love this culture!
For a truly authentic Sant Joan experience, head down to Barceloneta Beach. Once it gets dark though, things get pretty wild and it isn’t recommended to venture to the festivities with children.
Festa Major de Gracia (mid-August)
While almost every neighborhood, or barrio, has their own district festival, the Festa Major de Gracia is the most famous and well known. Lasting one week usually in August, the streets of the hip Gracia are transformed into a carnival haven decorated with colorful lanterns and handmade paper mache statues.
The idea is that each street choses a theme and competes to win the most extravagantly decorated. In the past, everything from underwater sea life to Hollywood nightlife could be seen. Loads of street vendors and food trucks dot the sidewalks so be sure to go hungry!
Musical concerts are also found in almost every square which presents the perfect opportunity for grabbing an outdoor table at one of the many cafes and enjoying your drink of choice!
Festa de La Merce (September 24)
Similar to Sant Jordi, the medieval festival of La Merce also has an interesting back story. Back in 1687, the city of Barcelona was swarming with a plague of locusts (Ack! Literally my worst nightmare).
In desperation, the government voted to ask the Virgin of Grace (Mare de Déu de la Mercè), for salvation. When their prayers were miraculously answered, the Virgin was named patroness of the city and is celebrated every year.
In addition to free entrance at all the city’s museums, countless firework displays can be seen and heard throughout Barcelona in the days surrounding September 24. The most spectacular of them all is at Placa de Espana where the National Museum of Art sits as the backdrop to the colorful light and water show of Font de Magica.
If you’ve never witnessed the orchestration put into building a human tower (castell), La Merce is the perfect opportunity to! These impressive displays of Catalan tradition can range anywhere from six to nine stories high and always with a small child at the top waving to the crowd waaaaay down below!
I’ll admit, I closed my eyes for most of it the first time. But these organizations are professionals. Truly, it’s a sight to see and now one of my favorite festival traditions to enjoy.