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?

8 responses to “What’s the Occasion?

  1. “Parades were invented by trombone players, who otherwise have no excuse.” The National Association of Trombone Players are, at this very moment, sharpening their pencils. You might want to get a P.O. box to handle mail. But, personally, I think it’s hysterical.

    • Most of the trombone players I’ve encountered so far are pretty good-natured. One even liked my idea that instead of being in the front of parade bands, the trombone section should be in back. That way the slides on their trombones would nudge the parade along at a brisk clip.

  2. Probably the most memorable parade I’ve attended was in Patzcuaro, Mexico. We stumbled onto a festival that only occurs every 100 years and celebrates the Virgin of Health – she was a tiny replica of Maria made of a honey and corncob paste by Tarascan Indians, and she’s paraded around town for her centennial. But last month we were in Florence, Italy and there was a fantastic parade on the Feast of Epiphany recreating the procession of the three kings. There were lots of parades when we lived in New Orleans, for Mardi Gras or St. Patrick’s Day – I caught a cabbage and some Irish Spring soap at the latter. Lots of parades in Taiwan too; they usually involved Chinese dragons or gods walking on stilts. A few weeks ago I was even in a parade – my dog and I were in a canine drill team as part of Durango’s annual Snowdown parade. As the song goes, “I love a parade…”

    • That festival that only happens every hundred years raises some interesting issues, like how do they pick someone to be in charge? It’s not like anyone has experience with the last one. And who remembers where they put the little Maria corncob from one century to the next?

  3. Wow, I almost forgot to mention Carnival in Las Tablas, Panama – beautiful women and girls dancing on floats while bands and supporters followed behind. Then there would be water gun fights in the crowds. From time to time, firetrucks would even come through and spray down the crowd – our new Panamanian friends liked to grab me and shout “Gringa!” to the firefighters, who would happily douse me.

  4. Gee, it’s surprising that hasn’t caught on in Minnesota. What could be more fun than getting drenched when it’s 20-below?

  5. My experiences pale by comparison to Jen’s. I was your date on the ones you mentioned in the blog post, but there are a couple we didn’t share.

    While you were working in New York about 12 years ago, I went to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade down 5th Ave. I watched for about two hours (wondering who would defend the city should there be a fire since all firemen seemed to be marching). I had tickets to a Broadway matinee and left my great spot along the route. Several hours later as I walked back to our hotel, the parade was STILL going on! And it had many hours to go before it was over.

    The other NYC event was 12 years ago today — Valentine’s Day, 2000. I had read in the NY Times that every 20 minutes there would be a wedding performed at the top of The World Trade Center. Since you were at work, I spent the afternoon witnessing nuptials — some were just the bride and groom, others had several attendants and lots of guests. One couple from Chicago needed a witness and I stood up with them. So much has happened since then, but I’ll never forget that day and the Empire State Building lit up with red and white lights.

  6. Interesting information about this festival i have never seen this. Planning to go there and enjoy this occasion. I always keep in touch with your blog and going to bookmark also.

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