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The Falles (in Valencia) or Fallas (in Spanish) are a Valencia tradition which celebrates Saint Joseph's Day (19 March) in Valencia, Spain. Each neighbourhood of the city has an organized group of people, the Casal faller, that works all year long holding fundraising parties and dinners, usually featuring the famous speciality paella, and of course much music and laughter.

Each casal faller produces a construction known as a falla which is eventually burnt.

Formerly, much time would also be spent at the Casal Faller preparing the ninots (Valencia for puppets or dolls). During the week leading up to 19 March, each group takes its ninot out for a grand parade, and then mounts it, each on its own elaborate firecracker-filled cardboard and papier-mâché artistic monument in a street of the given neighbourhood. This whole assembly is a falla.

The ninots and their falles are developed according to an agreed upon theme that was, and continues to be a satirical jab at anything or anyone unlucky enough to draw the attention of the critical eyes of the fallers — the celebrants themselves. In modern times, the whole two week long festival has spawned a huge local industry, to the point that an entire suburban area has been designated the City of Falles — Ciutat fallera.

Here, crews of artists and artisans, sculptors, painters, and many others all spend months producing elaborate constructions, richly absurd paper and wax, wood and Styrofoam tableaux towering up to five stories, composed of fanciful figures in outrageous poses arranged in gravity-defying architecture, each produced at the direction of the many individual neighbourhood Casals faller who vie with each to attract the best artists, and then to create the most outrageous monument to their target. There are more than 500 different falles in Valencia, including those of other towns in the Land of Valencia.

During Falles, many people from their casal faller dress in the regional costumes from different eras of Valencia's history — the fife and drum are frequently heard, as most of the different Casals fallers have their own traditional bands.

The subject matter of constructions may surprise outsiders. Although the Falles are a very traditional event and many participants dress in mediaeval clothing, the ninots for 2005 included such modern characters as Shrek and George W. Bush.

The days and nights in Valencia are one running party during the two weeks of Falles. There are processions galore — historical processions, religious processions, and hysterical processions. The restaurants spill out to the streets. Explosions can be heard all day long and sporadically through the night. Foreigners may be surprised to see everyone from small children to elderly gentlemen throwing fireworks and bangers in the streets, which are littered with pyrotechnical debris.

If you come to Valencia during Fallas, don't expect to sleep much. Your day will begin at 8am with la despertà ("the wake-up call"). You'll be lying in bed trying to recover from last night's partying when it starts. Brass bands will appear from the Casals and begin to march down every road playing lively music. Close behind them will be the fallers throwing large firecrackers in the street as they go (large enough to set off nearby car alarms, which will add their sirens to the bedlam!). This continues for an hour or so, until you decide you might as well get up and face the day ahead.

Sometime around 2pm there is the mascletà (an explosive display of the concussive effects of co-ordinated firecracker and fireworks barrages) in each neighbourhood; the main attraction is the municipal Mascleta in the Plaça de l'Ajuntament where the great pyrotechnic masters compete for the honour of providing the final Mascleta of the fiestas (on March 19th). Huge crowds gather from all corners of the city to see this event (go early!).

At 2pm the clock will chime and one of the lovely maidens (dressed in her faller finery) will call from the balcony of the City Hall, Senyor pyrotechnic, and pot començar la mascleta! ("Mr. Pyrotechnic, you may commence the Mascleta!"). Suddenly the square rips with a pyrotechnic display of a power rarely seen outside the battlefield. Louder is better as far as Valencia’s are concerned, and the masters don't disappoint them. For six or seven minutes hundreds of kilograms of flash powder are gradually detonated.

The crowd rocks with each explosion and great billowing clouds of smoke rise as it builds to the finale. The final crescendo of noise will leave you stunned and senseless for several seconds, at which point a huge cheer goes up from the crowd and the people run forward to applaud the pyrotechnic masters as they bow to their fans.

Mascleta is a very Valencia activity, hugely popular with the Valencia people and found in very few other places in the world. Smaller neighbourhoods often have their own mascleta for saint days, for weddings and for other celebrations as well. In Valencia, any reason is a good reason for Mascleta!

On the final night of Falles, around midnight on March 19th, these falles are burnt as huge bonfires. This is known as the cremate or cremà, i.e. "the burning", and this is of course the climax and point of the whole event, and the reason why the constructions are called falles ("torches").

Many neighbourhoods have a falla infantile (a children's falla, smaller and without satirical themes), which is a few metres away from the main one. This is burnt first, at 10pm. The main neighbourhood falles are burnt closer to midnight. The awesome falles in the city centre often take longer. For example, in 2005, the fire brigade delayed the burning of the Egyptian funeral falla in career Del Convent de Jerusalem until 1.30am, when they were sure they had all safety concerns covered.

Each falla is adorned with fireworks which are lit first. The construction itself is lit either after or during these fireworks. Falles burn quite quickly, and the heat given off is felt by all around. The heat from the larger ones often drives the crowd back a couple of metres, even though they are already behind barriers that the fire brigade has set several metres away from the construction. In narrower streets, the heat scorches the surrounding buildings, and the firemen douse the façades, window blinds, street signs, etc. with their hoses in order to stop them catching fire or melting, from the beginning of the cremà until it cools down after several minutes.

Away from the falles, there are people going crazy through the streets, with the city resembling an open-air nightclub, except that instead of music there is the occasionally deafening sound of people throwing fireworks and bangers around randomly. There are stalls selling products such as the typical fried snacks porras, churros and buñuelos, as well as roast chestnuts or various trinkets.

There are a few different theories regarding the origin of the Falles festival. One theory suggests that the Falles started in the Middle Ages, when artisans put out their broken artefacts and pieces of wood that they sorted during the winter then burnt them to celebrate the spring equinox. Valencia carpenters used planks of wood to hang their candles on.

These planks were known as parots. During the winter, these were needed to provide light for the carpenters to work by. With the coming of the spring, they were no longer necessary, so they were burned. With time, and the intervention of the Church, the date of the burning of these parots was made to coincide with the celebration of the festival of Saint Joseph, the patron saint of the carpenters.

This tradition continued to change. The parot was given clothing so that it looked like a person. Features identifiable with some well-known person from the neighbourhood were added as well. To collect these materials, children went from house to house asking for Una estoreta velleta (An old rug) to add to the parot. This became a popular song that the children sang to gather all sorts of old flammable furniture and utensils to burn in the bonfire with the parot. These parots were the first ninots. With time, people of the neighbourhoods organized the process of the creation of the Falles and monuments including various figures were born.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Falles were tall boxes with three or four wax dolls dressed in cloth clothing. This changed when the creators began to use cardboard. The creation of the Falle continues to evolve in modern day, when largest monuments are made of polyurethane and soft cork easily moulded with hot saws. These techniques have allowed Falles to be created in excess of 30 meters.


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