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Why does Spain bury a sardine to mark the start of Lent?

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Why does Spain bury a sardine to mark the start of Lent?
The Spanish tradition of the Burial of the Sardine. Photo: CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP

Every carnival season in Spain, mock funeral parades with weeping widows take place for the ceremonial burial of a fish.


It's no secret that most Spaniards need little reason to have a party, nor is the fact that many of their fiestas are born from bizarre traditions and myths.

The Spanish custom of entierro de la sardina is no different, and involves the ceremonial burying of a sardine to signify the end of the carnival season and the beginning of Lent.

It takes place on Ash Wednesday (February 14th in 2024) in places such as Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Murcia, Alicante, Madrid, San Sebastián and many more cities and towns across Spain.

READ ALSO: The ultimate guide to Spain's craziest carnivals

You may think that this is simply yet another example of the Spanish finding any old excuse for a fiesta - and in some cases, you may be right - but in reality, the custom is steeped in history and religious meaning.

The ritual was immortalised by Goya in the 1810s and is now celebrated across Spain and its former Latin American colonies.

So what is el entierro de la sardina and why do Spaniards bury or cremate a sardine?

'El entierro de la sardina', painting by Francisco Goya

In Spanish culture, the sardine represents the past. Its burial signifies forgetting the hardship of the long winter months and facing the future with renewed hope and optimism. What is buried will, it is hoped, resurface in a positive way in the future.

The burial is often accompanied by a sardine-themed parade of some description, sometimes involving a mock funeral procession of widows (men and women both clad in black female attire) who weep for the dead sardine.


Music, dancing, beer, wine and tapas are enjoyed in the street as a final blow-out before Lent.

Sardine effigies (sometimes giant ones) are burnt to represent the symbolic destruction of all the hedonism and vice enjoyed during the Carnival period, and as a precursor to the forthcoming moderation of Lent.

There are of course some festive variations. In some Murcian towns, the sardine is buried before Carnival, not after or during, supposedly so the approaching self-restraint of Lent is not shocked by the decadence of Carnival.

A giant sardine is ready for a fire burial in Murcia. Photo: Bertobarc90/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When did Spain's sardine burial tradition begin?

As with many quirky Spanish traditions, the origins of el entierro de la sardina are contested.

Many claim the tradition has pagan undertones, as procession floats are often named and styled after mythological Roman figures like Apollo and Neptune.

Others believe the ceremony originally began with King Carlos III in 1759, when meat (not fish) was buried underground because it cannot be eaten during Lent.


Carlos III had rewarded his hardworking servants with a shipment of sardines as a final gift before the start of Lent, but was shocked to find they had already gone off and, horrified by the smell, ordered that they all be buried in the nearby Casa de Campo park in Madrid. 

The burial was accompanied by a spoof funeral procession with whistling and grieving, and the ritual spread quickly across Spain and replaced various other festivals that celebrated the end of winter.

Others believe the origin of the fiesta comes from a group of 19th-century Madrid students who, for some reason, decided it a good idea to stage the satirical funeral procession of a sardine in order to represent abstinence and fasting.

Whatever the origin, the entierro de la sardina is a typical Spanish event full of food, wine, dancing, music, mythology, religion and folklore, and is not one to be missed.


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