Go Fish! The Burial of the Sardine

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While other people start Lent by pretending to give up certain foods, all over Spain we like to celebrate the end of Carnival season with an event involving a fake fish, men in capes, bagpipes and giant dancing figures. Welcome to the Burial of the Sardine!

Every Ash Wednesday in Madrid, (and across Murcia, Tenerife, and Barcelona) there is a lively funeral procession. For a fish. Bear with me, there is a method behind the madness…

A Large Scale Event

The festivities start in the morning in the centre of Madrid, and by about 6pm everyone has gathered on the banks of the Manzanares River, at the twin chapels of San Antonio de la Florida (one dates from the 1790s and has precious Goya frescos, the other was built in 1928 as a ‘spare’ for services). When I arrive teams of people are assembling processional giants: costumed figures which are found throughout European folklore. Made from a wooden frame with a papier-maché head, their bodies are covered in regional clothing, including a ‘chulapo’ and ’chulapa’: the traditional costume of Madrid’s working people.

The Giants and Big Head figures require an expert team of builders

Each figure has one person inside and they twirl around as they walk

On the other side of the road, underneath the statue of Goya, stand a group of ladies dressed for a real Spanish funeral. They are smiling now, but later, they’ll join the parade and get very method: wailing and crying over the late, lamented fish (only breaking character occasionally for a giggle and a chat).

Classic funeral wear for the sophisticated Spanish lady
The Alegre Brotherhood inspect the fish (for what I’m not exactly sure..)

The guys at the centre of all this fun are The Alegre Brotherhood (La Alegre Cofradía del Entierro de la Sardina). These men have been the guardians of this tradition since its post-dictatorship revival in the 1980s. Decked-out in black, with top hats and red-lined capes covered with silver badges, they enjoy showing off the famous, dead sardine (actually made of wood). The little blue star of the show is dressed in its own black outfit and lovingly placed inside a satin-lined, hand-painted coffin.

Go with the flow

The parade begins and crosses the river over the Victoria Bridge. The Brothers swing the coffin around on four chains, singing and passing sweets out to the children in the crowd. A troupe of bagpipers and drummers temporarily makes you feel like you’re in Scotland, but of course, these are traditional musicians from Galicia.

The Lume de Biqueira Pipe Band has played at festivals all over the world
The participants have a quick drink and a cigar before carrying on to the Casa de Campo

At nightfall, the procession reaches the Casa de Campo park, where the fish’s Last Will is read, its mortal remains are laid to rest, and a big bonfire is lit to symbolise renewal and rebirth.

Fishy Origins

If this all sounds a bit crazy and a lot of fun, well it is! As usual with these traditions, no one is exactly sure where it all started. One story is that in the 1770s King Carlos III ordered a load of fish for the beginning of Lent, but they arrived so rotten and stinky, he ordered them to be buried outside the city walls by the river. The funeral bit comes from the misery of thinking about burying all that free food, or that everyone is sad over the end of carnival season. Some say it has links to pagan rituals marking the end of winter, or, (highly likely) it’s a biology student prank from the 1800s, to have a funeral for the fish you are about to dissect sounds like a brilliant idea, after one too many cañas.

Whatever its origins may be, the festival was revived in post-dictatorship Spain and is alive and kicking today.

Which is more than we can say for the fish. 😭

Spanish painter Fransisco Goya created a painting of this festival around 1812, check it out here.

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