A Story of Giants

Today, 24 September, is the official feast-day of La Mercè, the Virgin of Mercy. Many events are happening through the city of Barcelona but we got up early to go see the “Passada de Gegans i Capgrossos” in the Plaça de St Jaume, a yearly event that has its beginnings in Medieval Catalunya.

We followed two papier-mâché giants to the square in front of City Hall. Soon, more than 80 giants came out of the arched doorway of City Hall to take position all around the square. All of them had elaborate, pristine costumes, proof of pride for the region each giants came from. This left plenty of time for photos and for kids to exclaim their delight and choose their favourite.  Half an hour later, four teams of “trabucaires,” groups of men and women in 18th century costumes holding blunderbuss(es?) began to shoot into a circle that had been evacuated of onlookers. The role and tradition of the trabucaires is basically as accompaniment, which consists of “gallear” or shooting in the air to make noise to alert, announce or emphasize an important event. Some of the weapons were obviously quite old, and misfired often. The noise was so intense that, even with my fingers drilled into my ears, I could feel the detonations through my chest down to my feet. Since I was standing right behind one of those gentlemen, I got more than my fair share.

Once the 18th century shooters had spent their last petards, the crowd was moved and remodelled to make space in the middle of the square to accommodate the giants so they could dance while a band –mainly winds with a drum– accompanied them. Each giant came from a particular town or region, and so did their band. The giants are often kings and queens from specific parts of history (such as Jaume I and his consort Violant of Hungary) but they’re also common people, farmers and fishers, scholars and maidens, among others.

The tradition dates back to the 15th century when the giant figure of Goliath was followed by David and St. Christopher in a parade of the Corpus Christi in 1424. Throughout the 19th century, the surrounding provinces and villages began to create giants that represented them,which gave them a local identity, but it was only after a competition in Barcelona of Giants, Dwarves and Typical Monsters (Concurs de gegants, nanos i monstros tipichs) that the movement began to soar.

Franco’s era forced people to put away their giants but, upon his death, many villages dusted up their puppets and recovered their festive traditions. The creation of a Giants’ Guild solidified the tradition into a renewed event.

The entire feel of the event was definitely medieval, despite all the phones and high-tech cameras taking pictures and videos. The giant statues are transported on the shoulders of volunteers who only have a small aperture to see; and yet, they are fleet of foot and their dancing has a decidedly regal air.

The dances ended with the giants regrouping and parading through the streets of Barcelona, followed by hordes of adults and kids. We bid them adieu there and left the event. It was fun, sometimes exhilarating, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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