Daily Archives: February 10, 2012

What’s the Occasion?

Barcelona -- Festa de la Merce

Holidays were invented as an excuse to have parades.  Parades were invented by trombone players, who otherwise have no excuse.

Those statements may not bear up to the scrutiny of anthropologists (since I just made them up moments ago), but you have to admit, there does seem to be some connection between holidays and parades.  Can you think of any culture or nation that gets bands playing and people marching in honor of yet another *#&! workday?

Sometimes the reason for the holiday is pretty creative.  We were in London one year for Trooping the Colour, which is one of the grandest parades I’ve ever seen.  It turns out that the occasion marks the queen’s official birthday, which isn’t her real birthday. 

The actual date of Elizabeth II’s birth is in April when the weather can be a little iffy, so Great Britain celebrates the monarch’s birthday on a Saturday in June, when the parade participants are much less likely to get soggy.

In Australia we experienced ANZAC Day on April 25.  Bands and marching are involved, but it is a solemn holiday that commemorates the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps — soldiers who fought at Gallipoli in World War I.  ANZAC Day is similar to Memorial Day in the U.S.

While visiting the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a genial man invited us to come and see a Bon Dance.  These events are held during the summer months in Hawaii, and are quite colorful; the dancers we saw were illuminated by paper lanterns.  The Bon Dance is a Buddhist custom that, if I understood correctly, is a way of honoring ancestors and welcoming their spirits back.

Distilled spirits — specifically rum — were a big part of the Goombay Festival we attended in the Bahamas.  It was never clear to me what we were all celebrating, but I remember people in feathered costumes, marching bands… and a dull headache the following morning.

Barcelona is a great place to be in late September, when the city spends several days celebrating its patron saint in what is known as Festa de la Mercè.  There are events all over Barcelona, including concerts, traditional dances and fireworks.  We’re talking aggressive, street-level fireworks; if you go, wear clothing that isn’t flammable. 

There are groups called Castellers who stand on each other’s shoulders to build human pyramids, some that rise several tiers from ground level.

One of the highlights of the Festa de la Mercè is a parade down La Rambla that features gegantes and capgrossos (giants and big heads).  The giants are costumes that are 10-15 feet tall, carried along the route by someone inside.

Occasionally the more athletic “operators” spin or bow slightly or make sudden moves that get the crowd roaring.  The costumes represent figures from Catalan history or culture — there are kings and queens and knights and, judging from the catcalls, villains.

The big-head figures are also representations of popular (or reviled) characters.  Between groups of these enormous papier-maché heads and the towering giants come — what else? — marching bands.  They are unusual because the bands consist almost entirely of drums and some reed instruments I’d never seen before; they must be of Catalan origin.  Oh, and there were no trombones, either.

Those are some of the holidays we’ve gotten to share with the locals in various places; what about you?  Where were you, and what was the occasion for the celebration?