Photo: Ben Kaberon

FOR 30 YEARS, HIPPIES, free spirits, and nonconformists have been gathering in the Nevada desert to light a giant wooden man on fire. Burning Man has become a huge event in the United States in its three short decades. But a city in Spain has had a similar festival going for hundreds of years. The Las Fallas festival in Valencia, Spain, dates back as far as the Middle Ages, and continues today.

The festival is like a mixture of Burning Man and Mardi Gras. Participants build monuments (ninots), which are often satirical in nature. What follows is five days of parties, parades, and fireworks. On the final night, the fallas (the groups who built the ninots) light their ninots on fire.

The resulting party is pretty spectacular.

Every night from 15 to 18 March, the sky of Valencia is filled with the light and colour of impressive firework displays. At 12 midnight, people gather on Paseo de la Alameda to enjoy the best display of colour and light, not to mention the spectacular Night of Fire, which is held during the early hours of the 18th and offers a fireworks display which is the only one of its kind in the world. #fallas #hijasdecarmenesteve #falleramayor #fm #manteletas #fallesunesco #valencia #algemesi #artesania #fallera #tradicion #fallerio #fallas #fallas2017 #lentejuelas #oro #indumentaria #valenciana #indumentariafemenina #lesfalles #fallasunesco #falles #lasfallas #pyro #trueno #truenos #petarda #petardos #böller #firecracker

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The festival is believed to have started in the Middle Ages. Carpenters at the time had planks of wood that held candles for them to work by in the dark of winter, but when Spring rolled around, the planks were no longer needed. So they were thrown into the street and burned as bonfires.

📍Falles 2017, Valencia, Spain #callesanvicenteferrer about to get 🔥🔥🔥 #Unesco #lasfallas #spain

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These being artisans, they eventually started crafting their wood into little monuments that resembled major figures in town life, and Las Fallas was born.

Eventually, the Catholic Church got involved, and rather than stopping the festival, they converted it into a celebration of Saint Joseph, who was himself a carpenter.

Over time, the ninots began to reflect the politics and resentments of the time. In the Spanish Civil War, anti-clerical sentiment meant that the ninots often resembled priests. Recently, ninots have been built to resemble Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. To light these effigies on fire is seen as a sort of liberation.

The satiric elements of the ritual were repressed during the Fascist Franco years following the Spanish Civil War, but they immediately came back when the fascists fell from power.

Just last November, UNESCO declared Valencia’s Las Fallas festival as an “intangible cultural heritage” of humanity.

On the final night, the massive, city-wide bonfire is called “La Crema.” The fires can get intense, so firefighters stay on hand to hose down the nearby shops if they start to catch fire.

So if you want to go to one of Spain’s great festivals, but lack the stomach for brutality that you need for the Running of the Bulls, or the changes of clothes you need for La Tomatina, consider giving Las Fallas a try.

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