There is one thing I love to teach my Spanish classes. More than salsa dancing, more than Las Meninas of Velazquez and Picasso, and more than music rhythm around the world. I love to introduce them to festivals.
Why festivals? There may be some obvious reasons already running through your mind. Who doesn’t love a party? Games, treats, fireworks–sounds like things kids love! Yes, I agree. These qualities make it easy to bring festivals into the classroom. However, beyond this layer of pure enjoyment, I find a special significance in festivals. These deeper layers of meaning are exposed through these simple questions.
While many festivals highlight the family, others are only adult-friendly and some are just for the kids. Every year I read my students a book about Dia de los Ninos (Children’s Day), a holiday that in Mexico celebrates both literacy and bilingualism in children. The participants in each festival give us new insight into the culture, and what is valued in a community.
How to celebrate?
Every holiday is unique. Even the same holiday is manifested differently across cities or countries. At Carnaval in Mexico, you’ll have to watch out for cascarones (confetti-filled eggs) being tossed at your head. While in Rio, you’ll experience one of the largest parades in the world. These differences can often reflect the culture, social construction, or important traditions of the location.
You may know that Latin Americans love their fireworks. Don’t listen to me, just take a look at their festival traditions. Have you heard of La Vaca Loca (the crazy cow)? During celebrations in Peru and Ecuador, one brave man will run around the party. He wears a metallic constructed cow design on his head, which is shooting off fireworks. Attendees laugh and dodge the fiery sparks as he runs past them.
When to celebrate?
Although the date of the festival is important, I love the excitement that occurs in the days, weeks, and months before. Costumes are being prepared, floats are being built, dances are rehearsed. You can feel the energy in the city grow bit by bit as the anticipation rises. Some festivals are drawn out over several days, with different themes and events for each day. No need to rush through your celebrating!
Festivals don’t begin out of nowhere. While its meaning may not always carry a heavy substance, a festival began for a reason. I enjoy discussing the ones that have odd beginnings, or a lost one altogether. In Spain, El Entierro de la Sardina (Burial of the Sardine) is a part of Carnaval with a disputed history. Some tell the story of a King who threw an enormous party, full of food and excitement. The leftovers, mostly sardines, began to create a stench so putrid that people buried them in the ground. Even while this could be the explanation, it still doesn’t answer the questions of why Spaniards dress up like mourners and burn their sardine floats to the ground.
Some of my favorite holidays call attention to the intricate history of a culture. Many are found to be a result of a mixing of two cultures, or a combination of a holiday from each. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead–If you’ve seen my apartment, you know I love this one) is a fascinating blend of ancient Aztec burial rituals and Catholicism. Seated on the Catholic feast day of All Souls’ Day, this festival celebrates the lives of the deceased but also encourages them on their spiritual journey.
Overall I find celebrations to be an integral piece to a knowing a culture. As humans, I believe we are drawn to the act of celebrating: getting together, sharing food and amusement, and taking part in a special occasion. I continue to look forward to sharing these events with my students. I treasure the moments their eyes light up in fascination at the size of the Carnaval parade floats in Rio, and also the cultural understanding they will begin to develop over time.