August 15 is a national holiday in Spain marking ‘La Asunción’ and is one of the Catholic Church’s ‘holy days of obligation’ when the faithful are expected to attend mass. However, over the years, the religious character of ‘15 de agosto’ has been lost and to many Spaniards it marks the start of their holidays. Although this year it falls on a Saturday, it’s not the norm to transfer it to another day in the calendar.
In 1950 Pope Pius XII established the dogma of ‘Assumption of the Blessed Virgin’ when the Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her days. To the faithful, it is one of the most solemn feast days in the Catholic calendar despite the fact that there is no specific narrative about her death and ultimate fate in the New Testament, although several passages have been interpreted by theologians to do so.
In a normal year, there would be 1,184 fiestas happening on this date throughout Spain, not all celebrating the Assumption. As has always been the case, Christianity seems to have assumed pagan traditions and celebrations have evolved from ancient customs marking the harvest season. However this isn’t a normal year and the COVID-19 health crisis has meant many if not all fiestas have been abandoned for the year, although some may be celebrated in modest fashion with all the required health and safety precautions in place.
In Sevilla, there would be processions in honour of the significance of the day. But, in nearby Malaga, there would be the Fería de Malaga which is one of the largest fairs in Spain and would normally attract some two million visitors each year yet has nothing to do with the Assumption. In 2020 it has been cancelled due to the health crisis, the first time the fair has been suspended since 1941 … when there was also a health crisis as typhus fever spread through the country.
In Madrid they would celebrate the Virgen de la Paloma whilst in Barcelona there are the fiesta known as Barrio de Gràcia. In Huesca in Áragon, there are fiestas in honour of San Lorenzo whilst in La Alberca in Salamanca, the fiesta of ‘Diagosto’ dates back several centuries and features La Loa, one of the oldest religious plays in Spain which plays out the fight between good and evil.
One of the most celebrated traditions is the Misterio de Elche, a two-day mystery play that dates from the Middle Ages that re-enacts the Dormition and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 2001 UNESCO declared it one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It would normally be taking place on August 14th/15th but the COVID-19 health crisis has forced its suspension until later in the year, although there are plans for a choir to sing two songs from the play in the Basilicia de Santa María to remind people that it should be taking place at this time.
In Xàbia, there is a street called Carrer de la Mare de Déu d’Agost and in normal circumstances the residents would gather outside for a community dinner accompanied music and dancing well into the early hours. But this year, no.