Weekly Article #5 – Carnival and Lent in the Pyrenees: Some Traditions and Customs


Constituting the borderland between two Roman Catholic countries, yet with folklore and customs that stretch back to primordial origins, it is unsurprising that the Carnival and Lent period in the Pyrenees features both eclectic and unique traditions. Some are purely Christian, others certainly contain older echoes, but all are entered into with great enthusiasm.

During Carnival, one finds records of a curious custom in certain towns and villages in Catalonia and the French Pyrenees. A figure known sometimes as ‘Gregoire’ (an effigy representing the spirit of Carnival) was paraded around the streets in an ox cart loaded with fresh greenery – that night, men dressed in their wives’ chemises with bundles of paper attached to the hem like a tail, would make their way with torches down lanes into the town’s main square, during which time they would attempt to set alight the paper ‘tail’ of the man in front! Gregoire was then ‘tried’ in villages up and down the valleys, before being burnt in a main square, during which the townsfolk would sing:

‘Al Carnabal es mort

Tire ballanes, tire ballanes;

Al Carnabal es mort,

Tire ballanes din dal clot’

(Carnival is dead,

Throw nuts, throw nuts;

Carnival is dead,

Throw nuts in his grave.)

(Alford, 1937, 37)

Across the border in the French Pyrenees, Shrove Tuesday also saw a unique event in the village of Poubeau. A cherished (and some might say clandestinely worshipped) boulder named ‘Cailhaeo d’Arriba-Pardin’ would be approached by a procession of young men from the village, who would then light a fire on the rock accompanied by ludicrous and obscene gestures. The fire lit, they would then dance joyfully around the rock, singing lustily. This was known as the ‘Fete des Gagnolis’ (Alford, 1937, 91).

In the Basque country, one finds the Masquerade/Maskarada performances in Soule (or Zuberoa in standard Basque) during Carnival. This performance is complex and highly nuanced, and rather than try to condense and reduce the events into a simple paragraph, the full description by Violet Alford is attached to the end of this article, it is highly recommended reading. Also, as mentioned in Article #2 (Bears) we can find the bear dance in the carnival of Bielsa in Aragon, part of a three day carnival which sees numerous archaic figures such as man encased in ivy leaves, a form of ‘hobby horse’ (the ‘caballet’) and the ‘trances’, young unmarried men who dress in goat skins and blackened faces and ‘attack’ young girls and children.

Ash Wednesday marks the end of the Carnival season, a time of excess and pageantry and start of Lent, a far more sombre (and lean) affair. One custom that marks this transition is the burial of the sardine (‘Entiero de la Sardine), a tradition found across Spain and the Catalan Pyrenees (and Andorra) is no exception. This tradition is said to originate in Madrid in the 18th century, and features a large mock funeral procession climaxing in the burial of a sardine (either real or replica) in a coffin, or its burning. The burning of the sardine has been suggested by Carmen Vargas (1993) to represent the purifying and purging of vices and chaos indulged in during the Carnival, restoring order for the start of penitence during Lent, and the burial of the sardine symbolises the start of a period of reflection. There are claims that this festival has its origins in pagan custom, however if it does indeed originate to the 18th century then this seems unlikely, even if it continues a now lost folkloric motif, possibly relating to the advent of Spring with the sardine representing the last of the Winter stores being given in thanks (entirely my own conjecture).

This day was a particularly ripe one in Andorra, during which opportunities were taken to have one last burst of fun before Lent really kicked in, indeed many took the day as the last day of carnival rather than the first day of Lent. The stuffed effigies of ‘Carnestoltes’ (the spirit of Carnival) were taken down from where they hung, and, in some parishes, they were publically burnt (this still happens). Some men went into their houses to ‘seize a woman there, lift her skirts and throw a handful of flour or ashes between her legs’, and others would daube their faces with flour or ash a parade through the village with knives in their hand, as if they were shaving (Hadden, 39, 1998). Carnival in Catalonia was also associated heavily with the slaughter of pigs, and in Urgell ‘El Funerals del Porc’ is sung during this period.

Another remarkable custom that occurred at the start of Lent in Catalan villages was the hanging up of a paper doll with seven legs (see photo), or a salted cod from which seven dried herring hang. This is reported in Joan Amades’ splendid ‘Guia de Festes Tradicionals de Catalunya’ (1958). The doll was typically hung from the tympanum of a chimney or the kitchen door, and every Sunday when returning from Mass the household would cut one leg from the doll, thus marking the passing of each week of Lent. The paper from which the doll was made would either be from the diary of the previous year, or in some cases Amades claims that it could be fashioned from a papal bull saved from the previous Lent! In some parishes, the doll would be framed by sardines, onions and garlic, as if it were an icon in a chapel. At the time of Amades’ writing, the custom was still being practised in Barcelona and Tarragona, however it is possible that this tradition survives in the more rural parts of Catalonia and the Pyrenees. The hanging salted cod is another method of counting down the weeks of Lent. The cod would be hung from the ceiling in the centre of the household’s or village’s store (Amades is unclear on this), with seven dried herring hanging from its tail. Each Saturday evening one of the sardines would be cut down from the cod, marking another week of Lent. Amades remarks that until recently (in 1958) in the district of Sant Marti de Provencals in Barcelona, this still occurred in some establishments.

With all this occurring, it is exciting to see what customs Holy Week itself will bring to these peaks and valleys!

Amades, J. 1958. Guia de Festes Tradicionals de Catalunya. Barcelona: Editorial Aedos.

Alford, V. 1937. Pyrenean Festivals: Calendar Customs, Magic & Music, Drama & Dance. London: Chatto and Windus.

Hadde, A. 1998. ‘Lent, Holy Week and Easter’ in Andorra: Festivals, Traditions and Folklore. Escaldes: Andorra Writers Circle.

Vargas, C. 1993. ‘3.7. El Entierro de la Sardina: muerte y resurrección.’ in El carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife: un estudio antropológico.  Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de La Laguna. pp. 254–261. Doctoral Thesis. Available here: ftp://tesis.bbtk.ull.es/ccssyhum/cs177.pdf


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