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LIFE IN SPAIN

Why this Spanish village celebrates New Year’s Eve in August

As if they'd had a premonition of what was to come 28 years in the future, this Andalusian village has not had to cancel New Year celebrations because they have their countdown and grape-eating in early August. Here's the fascinating reason why.

Bérchules New Year's in August
Bérchules held its first estival New Year's party on August 6th 1994. Stock photo: Mabel Flores/Flickr

As the rest of Spain and most of the world make their final preparations for restricted (or cancelled) New Years plans, there is one village in rural Andalucia that won’t be.

And they never do, in fact. Not in December, anyway.

Why not? Because they celebrate the New Year in August.

Hidden away high in the Alpujarras region of Andalusia in Granada province, Bérchules has, for the last 28 years, celebrated New Year’s in August.

The story goes back to New Year’s Eve 1993, when party preparations were well underway and the town awaited ‘94.

But sometime that evening, just a few hours before midnight, bad weather caused a power cut that left the village in the dark as locals  prepared for the new year countdown.

Bérchues, which has a population of just over 700 people, on any day other than August 6th. Photo: Erik Korsten/Flickr

Bérchules eventually held its New Year’s party on August 6th 1994, hoping to recover not only the festive spirit but some of the lost hospitality earnings, and the move has become a tradition since.

In recent years, the strange custom has attracted visitors: it is estimated as many as 10,000 now attend the August New Year’s bash, in a pueblo of around 700.

Much of the year is spent planning for the summer celebration: preparations for the party begin as early as January, and as August is historically a month full of fiestas in Spain, in a town so small hosting a party so big with just one road in and one road out, it’s important they get everything right. 

Despite taking place in August, during the notoriously hot Andalusian summer, the people of Bérchules still have all the typical Christmas traditions of the holiday season.

Polverones, turrones, and mantecados are all enjoyed, as there are 3,000kg of them to supply the high summer demand in Bérchules.

They even have the Three Wise Men on horseback, and grapes are sold a dozen a piece for those wishing to stick with Spain’s New Year tradition, while a small shop sells Santa hats and reindeer horns. 

Bérchules’ August New Year celebrations are so popular, and such a draw for outsiders, that the Andalusian government has recognised the tradition as an official Festival of Tourism Interest.

However this year, with Covid-19 infections rising and restrictions reintroduced across the country, the age-old Spanish tradition of bunching up in the central square to eat twelve grapes as the town hall bells chime at midnight was banned. Locals had to do it at home this year.

There was also a socially-distanced, masked parade complete with a brass band and the Three Wise Men.

So it seems that whether it’s in August or December, big congregations of people outdoors as is so common in Spain’s local festivals, will never quite be what it was until Covid-19 is well and truly a thing of the past. Here’s to hoping that happens in 2022!

Article by Conor Faulkner, who coincidently was born on the exact same day as Bérchules experienced the power cut that led to its estival New Year’s tradition. 

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SPANISH TRADITIONS

Is this Spain’s most ‘grotesque’ bull festival?

Twisting and grunting, a terrified bull with burning balls of tar attached to its horns charges into the darkness in a small town in Spain. Organisers don't want the general public to see the footage as "they know it's not culture, it's animal abuse," say activists.

Is this Spain's most 'grotesque' bull festival?

Animal rights campaigners have called for a ban on a centuries-old festival in the medieval town of Medinaceli, calling it animal abuse.

The ironically named Toro de Júbilo – “Bull of Joy” – is an event which typically takes place on the second weekend in November.

Spanish anti-animal cruelty party PACMA has said it is mulling legal action against organisers of the event.

“This grotesque tradition continues to be celebrated even though we are no longer in the Stone Age,” it tweeted.

You can watch footage of the event in the YouTube video below. It is age-restricted given the graphic nature of the event.

Just before midnight on Saturday, a group of mostly men dressed in matching grey uniforms drag the bull into a makeshift bullring set up in the main square of the Castilla y León town.

They then tie the bull to a wooden post and attach balls of highly flammable tar to its horns as hundreds of people watch behind barriers. 

They cake mud to the animal’s back and face in an effort to protect it from the flames, before setting the tar balls alight.

Participants then release the bull into the square, covered in sand for the occasion, to cheers and applause from the crowd.

fire bull festival medinaceli

The bull is caged for several hours in a small box and covered in mud before the depraved spectacle begins. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

The bull frantically shakes its head to try to rid itself of the burning balls of tar as it races around the square.

Revellers then jump into the ring and attempt to dodge the bull in a purported test of courage. Some dangle a cape in front of it.

This continues for about 20 minutes until the flammable balls on its horns go out and the bull collapses. It is then dragged out of the ring.

‘Simply animal abuse’

The bull’s life is traditionally spared at the end of the event.

But in the 2022 edition the animal died after another young, castrated bull – which organisers sent into the bullring to guide him out of the arena – rammed him in the head, the festival said.

Jaime Posada, of the Spanish branch of animal rights group Anima Naturalis, which is also calling for a ban, said the bull is kept in a tight pen for hours before it is dragged into the square.

“It can’t move, it can hardly sit down, so it is stressed simply from that,” he told AFP.

Participants attach flammable balls to the bull’s horns before releasing it. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

Participants declined to be interviewed, and PACMA and other opponents of the fiesta said locals prevented them from filming the ritual.

“Why are they afraid? Basically because they know that this is not culture, it’s simply animal abuse and they enjoy doing it,” Posada said.

The festival, however, is one of the main events for Medinaceli, which is home to around 650 people.

The regional government of Castilla y León has even given the festival a special cultural status.

The Medinaceli town hall did not respond to a request to comment.

There is growing opposition among Spaniards to the hundreds of bull festivals which take place in Spain, but in rural communities in particular, many people still support these old traditions involving varying degrees of torture and distress for the bulls, and in many cases death.

Another controversial bull festival is El Toro de la Vega in Tordesillas near Valladolid, which sees one bull hunted to the death through the town’s streets by lancers on horseback and some on foot.

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