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La Patum street festival, ready for action

La Patum is a historical and immensely popular representation, born and derived from the ancient and medieval theatre performances held during the week of Corpus Christi. It is held in Berga, in Central Catalonia and it has been declared by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. 100,000 people expected at Berga for this Corpus Christi Festival.

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06 June 2012 08:16 PM

by

Gemma Font

Berga (CNA).- Today, Wednesday June 6th, the streets of Berga -in the heart of Catalonia- will be filled with people with burnt jeans, black and red hats and neckerchiefs. La Patum is a historical and immensely popular representation, born and derived from the ancient and medieval theatre performances held during the week of Corpus Christi. This year it runs from June 6th to 10th. It is one of the most traditional street festivals in Catalonia, and currently involves thousands of people, although Berga itself only has a population of 17,000 people. The festival has been declared by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and is officially a Traditional Festival of National Interest of the Catalan Government.


The Patum\u2019s origins go back to Medieval Corpus Christi processions which were intended to educate, moralise and teach people. However, over time, they took on their own identity and gained followers thanks to the more leisurely side to the Festival. They lost their original meaning and the more festive representations are the only ones that have survived. The original Patum, very different to the current one dates back to the second half of the fourteenth century. But until 1454 we have no written documents. Patum was not unique in Catalonia, but bans from civil, ecclesiastical and royal authorities meant that very few of these festivals survivals. Now, the only that remained is the Patum of Berga.

The hardest part of Patum is to explain what it is. It is a series of dances in Sant Pere Square, where a small number of people, dressed in symbolic clothes, dance following the sound of an instrument similar to a drum. They are accompanied by everyone in the square. For instance, when it\u2019s Nans Nous -New Dwarves- time, four move to the middle of the square while those in big heads and flowing dresses dance around them, and the whole square sings and goes round in circles with them.

There are 11 dances and 10 crews. Each day of the Patum, the first 9 dances are done, most are done without fire and some are performed in solemn fashion. This first round is repeated, followed by the famous Plens turn, which closes the complete Patum round. When it is time, the lights of Sant Pere Square are switched off, the music starts and it turns into a hell full of fire, with almost 1,000 burning whips. Then, all the dances are repeated, following the same script. Once the two rounds are finished, the Tirabols arrive. Although there are only four regulatory repetitions of this two and a half minute dance, there is no exact number of times as to how it can be repeated: the couplet plays and the whole square dances until the end. They can start around 2 am, and keep going until about 4 am. However, before we reach this point, Berga spends many weeks preparing for this moment.

The Patum organisation

Throughout the year, the heads of 10 crews meet to outline and agree on details regarding the Patum. Whatever they decide, a representation of these crews and the councillors of Berga, approve everything that has already been agreed between the groups. This year, it was decided that the Nans Nous group -New Dwarfs- will have new costumes.

Nerves creep in to Berga throughout the month of May, and it\u2019s difficult to be oblivious as everything begins to move. The security preparations are made first, two weeks before the start. Next to the square two ambulances will be on call along with uniformed and plain clothed police, firefighters, civil protection and the Red Cross, amongst others. Not too far away in the hospital emergency way double staff will be on call these days.

However, despite the security provided around the square during the Patum, fire can still be dangerous. Following European regulations on the use of fire during festivities, the crew leaders have been trained and are recognised as experts, and are responsible for a group. The goal is clear: avoid all possible accidents. For now, the success rate is really high. There are few incidents during the festival, and those that do take place are normally due to a careless visitor.

Despite the security operations prepared during several weeks to coordinate efforts, there is a formal process that is never forgotten when Patum is near. This past May 20th, the city of Berga held a special vote: it was time to decide whether or not there would be a Patum. As every year, they voted to celebrate the Patum. With this symbolic agreement, the preparations begin in earnest: two days later, 170 children start rehearsals next to the pool at Berga. Each day during the two weeks left of Patum, they will review their dances, and learn how to party safely with fire and all necessary precautions, thanks to both theoretical and practical classes.

Between rehearsal and rehearsal, the last weekend before the Patum arrived. On Sunday June 3rd, at 8pm the 'four whip test' was done. This means that the people who participate in the Patum, the patumaires, meet with the Masses crew. They are four instruments that represent four demons, each with a whip. They crack up and down, making the boxes resonate, and are passed from one person to another. When the whip cracks, the devil is dead. During this test, all should go well. This means that all preparations are ready, and the Patum can start. This past Sunday, everything went well.

Plens, the last and most striking moment

Those who have to wait until the last minute to polish all the details are the Plens crew. Each person wears a devil mask with six whips like horns. At the bottom, they wear three more. This mask is covered with Vidalba, a native vine of Catalonia, which surrounds the head. Dressed with red and green clothes, 100 demons are created for each round. This means that nearly 1,000 whips fill the Sant Pere square, turning it into an earthly hell. Once the Patum day is over, these masks will be dismantled. So, the following day, Friday at 8am, the whole group will make 60 masks for children. The same event will be repeated on Saturday afternoon, when they will make 200 manually for Sunday, the most brilliant day of the Patum festival.

Last night was the last time patumaires could sleep. When they wake up today, Corpus and Patum will have begun. It is their great festival, and the town of Berga will live the festival to the full all week.

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  • The Patum street party kicks off this Wednesday and will last until Sunday (by ACN)

  • The Patum street party kicks off this Wednesday and will last until Sunday (by ACN)