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

EXPLAINED: Why does Spain bury a sardine to mark the start of Lent?
A Spanish woman dressed in a widow outfit presents to children the sardine which will be buried on Ash Wednesday in Madrid. Photo: AFP
Each year across Spain at the end of carnival, funereal parades take place for the ceremonial burying of a fish. But why? Conor Faulkner investigates.

It is no secret that the Spanish 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 beginning of Lent.

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.

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The ritual was immortalised by Goya in the 1810’s and is now celebrated across Spain and its former Latin American colonies; but what is “entierro de la sardina” and why do they bury a sardine?


El entierro de la sardina By Francisco Goya

In Spanish culture the sardine represents the past, and its burial signifies forgetting it, 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, usually involving a mock funeral procession on Ash Wednesday.

Music, dancing, beer, wine and tapas are enjoyed in the street as a final blow-out before Lent, and in some regions local men even crossdress and follow the cortege in stockings, dresses and wigs.

Figures of sardines 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. The tradition also has pagan undertones, as procession floats are often named and styled after mythological Roman figures like Apollo and Neptune.

As with many customs in Spain, however, things are slightly different down in Murcia. In some Murcian towns the sardine is buried before Carnival, not after, supposedly so the approaching self-restraint of Lent is not shocked by the decadence of Carnival; and in Murcia city the fiesta is on the weekend following Easter not Ash Wednesday, and stretches across several days of partying.

As with many quirky Spanish traditions, the ritual is both steeped in history and contested. Many 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 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 thesatirical funeral procession of a sardine in order to represent abstinence and fasting. Whatever the origin, the entierro de la sardinais a typically Spanish event full of food, wine, dancing, music, mythology, religion and folklore, and is not one to be missed.

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