Origin, history | Origen, historia | Origem, história
The Pyrenees, a mountain range that legends have often depicted ablaze, remains home to a clutch of communities who keep alive a tradition that can be traced back some one thousand years: the Summer Solstice Fire Festivals, known variously as falles, haros and brandons. The ritualistic, cyclical celebrations are practiced on the same night ever year when the sun is at its zenith and fire thus becomes a reflection of it. This was originally a pagan celebration (Sun cults) and was then adopted by Christians (St John the Baptist and John the Apostle); it is now a collective festival that brings societies together while retaining its magical and symbolic atmosphere born of a blend of beliefs, customs and rituals. In readiness for nightfall the communities use their traditional skills to make falles, halhes or halhas (from the Latin facula, or torch), haros, taros, harts or faros (from the Greek pharos, or beacon) and brandons (Frankish brand, or firebrand; occitan brandou, green bough at the top of the firebrand). Once night falls these communities begin ritualistic processions that evoke strong feelings and emotions. From the top of the mountains (faro), where a stake is lit, to a village – or just in a village – flaming torches are carried against a backdrop of high emotion and shouts, all the way to the falles majors, haros and brandons (big trunks that have been prepared and raised aloft in the main square) or taro (a trunk raised up and then dragged through the streets by the whole population). These are then set on fire and the flames begin spreading purifying, invigorating and fertilising goodness across the mountains, fields, villages and populations. The first descent is a special moment for young people, signifying the transition from adolescence to adulthood. There is also an emotional pause for introspection and thinking about friends who passed on. The celebrations also involve cultural spaces (such as faros, courses or squares), communal meals and popular folklore. In the morning people collect embers or ashes to protect their homes or gardens.
The whole populations of the municipalities bear the element, with their institutions and associations. The heritage belongs to the entire community, which is also the practitioner. The generic term fallaire(s) refers to anyone who bears and practices.
There are special roles and categories for people who take on responsibilities at various moments or in certain rituals involved in the festival or preparation. Numerous celebration still feature institutional (town hall or mayor), ecclesiastical or parish (priest) and civil representatives (formal or informal associations).
In some municipalities, such as Luchon, the mayor is tasked with lighting the brandon (in this case with the priest) and town hall staff are responsible for preparing the brandon. In all of the small municipalities these tasks are performed by residents themselves. Meanwhile, in other municipalities such as Arties, it is the mayor’s duty to extinguish the Taro in front of his house, to which the large flaming trunk is dragged by the population. In other cases, the priest either blesses (Isil) or lights (Les) the fire beforehand. In both cases the falles, faro and haros are prepared by the fallaires. Elsewhere, the most recently married man in the village lights the fire (as is the case in Sahún and Boí). This man (fadrí major in Catalan), in Boí for example, leads the fallaires’ descent with the flaming torches from the mountain to the village. In Andorra, the fallaire major, is elected annually, can be a man or a woman and leads the procession of fallaires. This community also elects a fallaire menor, who is in charge of supervising children up to 16 years of age. Here the Fallaires Association prepares the falles. In Luchon, the 250-year-old Company of Horseback Guides (Compagnie des Guides à cheval) pays tribute to the brandon by cracking whips before the fire is started. Women also play specific roles. For example, pubilles (young unmarried girls) await the fallaires’ arrival in the village (as in La Pobla de Segur) and present them with moscatell (muscat) and coca de sucre (a sweet pastry). They fulfil the role of dinner host and lead the procession through the village until the arrival of the falles. In all cases the most experienced people in each of the steps, rituals and tasks are recognised and accepted naturally by the group and take on various roles and duties in the municipalities where they are not established by rituals, even if they sometimes have particular titles (mayordomos or mayordomas), as, for example, in San Juan de Plan or the caps de colla (group leaders) in Catalan communities.