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Unraveling Berga's secret: how La Patum festivities have endured 600 years

Traditional celebration in northern town of Berga has medieval roots and attracts thousands of people

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18 June 2022 06:17 PM

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Guifré Jordan & Gerard Escaich Folch | Berga

A crammed square lit up by fire, music and thousands of enthusiastic people jumping and dancing. This is what visitors and locals see on the main day of the annual La Patum celebrations in the northern town of Berga, a UNESCO-recognized party.

Thursday evening is when the vast majority of Berga’s 16,600 residents get together to celebrate, just as they have been doing for around 600 years. However, it all starts on Wednesday afternoon and lasts until Sunday night, in a square that can fit around 6,000 people.

The 2022 event is one of the most important celebrations in the history of Berga. These festivities have always taken place in some way except for on two occasions. Once was during the Spanish Civil War, from 1936 to 1939, and the second time in 2020 and in 2021, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The sights are spectacular, but it’s the sound of Patum - the beating of the drum - that gives it its name. Take a listen to the Filling the Sink podcast episode about La Patum to immerse yourself in the festivities.

Just hours before La Patum kicked off on Wednesday evening, everything looked quite calm, but it was pretty obvious something big was going on after the Covid hiatus. Musicians were getting ready amid a heavy heat, some even playing ‘Jingle Bells’ to see if those few dozen people gathering in the Plaça Sant Pere square might cool down upon hearing some Christmas carols.

But while people waited, some Berga residents were getting excited about jumping once again in the town’s main square. Each day has different events, for example on Wednesday and Saturday, three groups parade through the narrow medieval streets. 

The Guita Grossa dragon spits fire from its mouth and demons carrying maces spend the night dancing and jumping among thousands of patumaires, or Patum revelers. 

On Wednesday, it all starts at 8pm sharp when the Tabal, an old drum turning 400 this year, starts banging. Pa-tum, pa-tum, pa-tum. Tabalers, those who play the drum, do not stop all night, setting the pace for everyone else. 

"The Tabal drum has not been changed [in all its history]. It was badly damaged in 1726 and was fixed," Xavi Prat, the head of the Tabal drum group, told Catalan News, just minutes before he was due to play.

In fact, the Tabal, the Guita Grossa, and some of the giants have been performing since at least 1621.

On Thursday too, several groups celebrated their 400th anniversary, such as the Vestidors de Plens i Maces. According to the group leader, Joan Sala, the performance aimed to go "back to the past," since the old 'salt de plens' used to resemble what was witnessed on Thursday night.

In order to mark the milestone, they featured in the 'salt de plens' with firecrackers on both their tails and their heads for the first time since 2006.

Medieval Age

The Patum does not happen on a specific date. Each year it varies depending on when Corpus Christi is celebrated. In fact, despite the fact that it is not considered a religious celebration, it all started back in the Medieval Age and is linked to the religious society of the time.

Corpus Christi processions used to honor the sacred sacraments, but one part of it, more informal than the other, began to honor non-religious authorities, and that was the seed of today's Patum.

"When the Church sees that celebrations are getting out of control and they don’t have the seriousness required, prohibitions begin from the 15th century," Berga historian Albert Rumbo explained to Catalan News. 

He used to be a ‘geganter’ carrying around the ‘gegants’, or giants in English. 

"The great miracle of Berga is not creating La Patum but keeping it going for centuries." 

In fact, Patum, or as it was known before, ‘bulla’ (a crowd, noise made by several people) was not only traditional in Berga, but across Catalonia. It all started in the late 14th and early 15th century. "Even ours could have started by then, during the 1450s they were prohibited, so it would be logical that it would appear back then," Rumbo said.

The vast majority of these bans came from the Council of Trent held between 1545 and 1563, part of Catholicism’s Counter-Reformation. 

UNESCO

There's no other similar celebration from back then that has survived. And that's why in 2005 UNESCO recognized it as intangible cultural heritage - a first for a Catalan tradition. 

"We were concerned that Spain might not pick us as their bid, because they could only pick one and there were celebrations like San Fermín. But once they submitted our proposal to UNESCO, I was sure we would be recognized and that’s what happened," Rumbo said. 

One of the things UNESCO valued the most is the fact that it remains highly popular and unites the town and the whole county, across all ages.

After the two-year hiatus because of Covid-19, residents and visitors could not wait to go back to Berga to celebrate La Patum.

"From the moment you are born - there are newborns here today - until you grow up, it’s with you all your life. At school, when you are a teenager, when you are a mum…" Cristina Farràs, a member of Guita Grossa group, told Catalan News, while sitting next to a fire-spitting demon figure. 

Farràs, with her friend Cristina Urrea joked about being "born here under the dragon," as their "parents were already members of Guita Grossa."

"There is no child in Berga that does not have something of La Patum at home," Tabaler Xavi Prat said.  

One of the most important things for UNESCO to recognize La Patum as intangible cultural heritage is "the great value of the parade, as it is unique and has endured until our day," Albert Rumbo said. 

"The floats are the original ones, they continue to be made out of plaster, wood, and carton. There is no polyester."   

Guita Grossa is also one of the most important elements during La Patum, as hundreds dance around it, and during "the parade it can get damaged," which is why some have started to prepare copies, Cristina Farràs and Cristina Urrea explained. 

However, the one being used "is still the original… [although] the neck used to be made of wood and a little bit longer, but now is made out of metal and has been shortened."   

"When you love something, you take care of it," Cristina Urrea said. 

Child-friendly celebration

Fire and massive crowds in a small square might not feel like a safe place for children, but in fact, several of them enjoy the adult version of La Patum. However, for the smaller ones, there are child-friendly activities on Friday – but there’s still fire involved!

Yet, the days most look forward to are Thursday and Sunday, when the action revolves around Sant Pere's square, featuring all the groups and hundreds of firecrackers that are set off at the same time on several occasions as madness overcomes this jam-packed location. 

Patumaires’ all gather for the 'salt de plens', that is, a performance of some 200 people dressed up as demons that jump at once firing around a thousand firecrackers.

This is the apotheosis of La Patum's five days, and the moment is also repeated on Sunday.

Berga residents await June with anticipation every year to feel they are part of a succession of generations that have shaped a unique event.

This year, to mark the 400th anniversary, the Vestidors de Plens i Maces performed for a minute in silence. This is how it used to be in the past, "but La Patum without music would not be understood now," Albert Rumbo explained. 

"It is one of the changes that generations have been adding to a medieval tradition," he said.

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  • The Maces group celebrate their 400th anniversary during the 2022 Patum in Berga, June 16, 2022 (by Mar Martí)

  • The Maces group celebrate their 400th anniversary during the 2022 Patum in Berga, June 16, 2022 (by Mar Martí)

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