During my year here, the two events that generated the most intense anticipation and hype were Semana Santa (and you all know how that turned out!) and Feria. Fortunately, the raging storms that plagued southern Spain during Easter week cleared up in time for the ferias to display their full spectrum of charm and splendor two weeks later.
“Are you going to dance Sevillanas?” “Have you tried rebujito?” “Are you going to wear a gitana dress?” These are a few of the questions my students peppered me with in the months before feria. There is an entire vocabulary connected to the ferias, and I think my students would be flabbergasted if they knew that 6 months ago, these questions would have been meaningless to me. So, for my non-Spanish readers who find these words senseless as I did, here is a glossary guide to all things feria… In some ways, ferias resemble fairs in the US
Feria: First thing first- what is a feria? It can be translated as the similar-sounding word “fair,” and in some ways, ferias do resemble typical fairs in the US. They have a vast section of carnival rides, and lots of deliciously unhealthy food to eat, though chocolate and churros stands take the place of funnel cakes or corn dogs.
Girl in flamenco dress on the “coches locos,” or bumper cars
Historically, the ferias were connected to commerce, and were a place and time to trade livestock, horses, foodtuffs, etc. Lots of cities in Spain have a feria, which is usually dedicated to a commercial product such as manzanilla wine (Sanlúcar), ham (Aracena), horses (Jérez de la Frontera), etc. Seville’s is simply called the Feria del Abril (April Fair), which was dedicated to livestock trading, and is today considered the grand ancestor of all the other ferias.
La portada, or entry gate, to Seville’s feria, lit up at night
The ferias last for one week, and certain days have special themes, or events. For example, at 12am on the Sunday before feria begins, there is a lighting ceremony, called the “Alumbrao,” when the vast light displays covering the feria grounds and gates are switched on simultaneously. Some ferias have a Kid’s Day, when the prices of rides and attractions are reduced, or a Ladies’ Day, when all of the women make a point to dress up and attend in large women-only groups. On the last day of some ferias, like Seville’s, there is a fireworks show to conclude the festivities. During the ferias, there are also bullfights, and some commercial activity, like buying and selling horses, continues today behind the scenes.
A decorated horse carriage in front of a row of casetas in the Feria de Abril
Caseta: A caseta is a temporary 3-walled, roofed structure set up en masse at feria to create miniature cities. The little “streets” are even named, in Seville after famous bullfighters, and in Jerez after famous flamenco performers. Each caseta contains a kitchen, dining area, and often room for dancing. The casetas range from super simplistic to elegant and elaborate, and each year prizes are awarded to the best-decorated casetas.
One of the prettier casetas at night
I attended Seville’s Feria de Abril and Jerez’s Feria del Caballo, and a major difference between the two is that in Seville’s Feria, the casetas are private, and in Jerez, they are public. What does this mean? In Seville, individual families, companies or organizations own the casetas, and personally invite friends and colleagues to come spend time in their caseta. In this case, the food and drinks served are usually at the cost of the people who own the caseta.
Julia and I inside a public caseta in Jerez
In Jerez, the casetas operate much more like little bars and restaurants. Anyone can enter the caseta, and then pay for his or her own food and drinks. There are some public casetas in Seville, and some private ones in Jerez, but in each case, they are a small minority. As a visitor to Spain, Jerez’s feria makes for a much more interactive experience. At Seville’s feria, I felt like an observer, while in Jerez, I felt like a participant.
Two girls in matching gitana dresses
Gitana dresses: Gitana (gypsy), or flamenco, dresses are the traditional clothing for women to wear at ferias. One of my teachers explained to me that it is the only traditional Spanish dress that is subject to trends and changing currents of fashion. For example, a cascade of ruffles at the bottom of the dress may be trendy one year, while the next year, a more simplistic design might be favored, or long sleeves with flared cuffs may make way to short sleeves with a cropped jacket.
Matching mom and baby
Helpful older sister in a knee-length flamenco dress
Riding sidesaddle in a flamenco dress! I can attest to how difficult this would be- because the dresses are so tight, they’re quite uncomfortable to move around in!
And sidesaddle on a moto!
Two kind teachers let Helen and I borrow their flamenco dresses to wear to the Feria del Caballo.
The accessories, an indispensable part of the outfit, undergo the same fluctuations in popularity. For example, this year it was very stylish for young women to wear their flowers directly on top of their heads, while the more classic way to wear it is behind the ear.
My hairstyle for the ferias was very conservative- flower behind the ear, and only one peineta (little decorative comb). Women create very elaborate styles with multiple flower, peinetas, pins, etc.
I asked this teacher how women know what the flamenco dress trends are for a given year. Are there magazines? Websites? She said though flamenco dress fashion shows exist, the trends primarily spring from trendsetters who debut new looks at feria each year. This trend is subsequently copied in larger and larger numbers over the following years. Once the trend becomes totally diffused, it ceases to be fashionable, and new styles take its place.
Men in equestrian clothing
Men usually wear a nice suit (navy is a popular color choice), or equestrian clothing with flat-topped hats. Young boys are sometimes dressed in traditional equestrian clothing, though Julia and I think they look like little pirates! To me, the men and women together gave the impression of attending a Spanish prom.
A little “pirate”
Sevillanas: The Sevillanas are four dances that blend Spanish folk dance and flamenco. It seems that Spanish people, or at least those from Seville and Jerez, have these dances programmed into their DNA. Everybody dances these at the ferias. They are danced in partners, and consecutively in a series, first the first, then the second, and so on, and the series is repeated until the song is over. I didn’t learn the Sevillanas, though the teachers from my school tried to give me a crash course during our school’s luncheon at the Feria del Caballo. I can’t say it was very successful! Even without knowing the dances, however, it is a lot of fun to watch other people dancing them.
Me with a glass of rebujito, and a woman dancing Sevillanas in the background!
Rebujito and pimientos: Rebujito is the traditional feria drink, composed of Sprite and Vino Fino (a type of Sherry wine). It is really refreshing, especially on hot days, and I think people rightly warn of the need to take caution with this drink because the Sherry’s strong punch is well hidden behind the Sprite!
Pimientos, or green peppers fried in olive oil, are traditional feria food. I loved them, especially because they were like a little taste of Mexican food to me, and we have been sorely deprived of good Mexican food here!
Interestingly, though everyone I talked to loves rebujito and pimientos, they don’t drink or eat them outside of the ferias. I suppose this is akin to our only eating pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. There’s something about reserving it for a special occasion that makes the food even more special.
Ta-da! My outsider’s guide to ferias.
If you have any questions about these unique traditions, ask away and I’ll do my best to answer (or consult Wikipedia)!