What did Barcelonians do in the 19th century for ‘La Puríssima’?

Although the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not recognised until the second half of the 19th century, Barcelona’s devotion to “La Puríssima” (as it is also known in Spain) goes back a very long way. In fact it was in 1390 that the old city council, the Consell de Cent, introduced the celebration. After that, new events added particular features until the culminating point in the 19th century. These are explained by the historian Jordi Montlló in his book “Nadal a cel obert. Les fires de pessebres a Barcelona”. (Christmas in the open. Nativity fairs in Barcelona.) Would you like to know what they are?

Traditionally the Feast of the Immaculate Conception has been regarded as the first celebration in the Christmas cycle, which ends with Candlemas on 2 February. An example of this change of cycle is that the year’s first turrons and neules (rolled wafers) used to be sold from 8 December on. People could buy them at the Fira de la Puríssima, a very busy fair held in Plaça de Sant Jaume and the adjacent streets, such as C/ Ferran. That explains why the Immaculate Conception was popularly known as a “turron Virgin”.

As for the nativity scenes, Joan Amades explains that self-respecting nativity-scene makers didn’t buy anything during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. That was a day for walking round the fair in Plaça de Sant Jaume, having a look and keeping your eyes open for anything new on the market. Most of them bought everything they needed for their nativity scene on St Lucia’s Day (13 December), when there was a big fair selling nativity items around the Cathedral.

Amades also explains that La Puríssima was the patron saint of all the guilds that had to knead, mould or mix to make their products: bakers, cake makers, wax chandlers, noodle makers, grocers and so on. Adopting the Virgin as their patron under the title of La Puríssima (the most pure) was a kind of symbol because their line of work was one where it was very easy to adulterate the products. So they chose her as their patron because she symbolised the purity of their work.

What’s more, all those guilds had a little chapel with her image. Grocers decorated it with coloured hosts (consecrated bread) and paper flowers, and wax chandlers with little coloured candles. It was also common during the eight days of the festival for them to have a lemon hanging from the hands of the image. That represented their incorruptibility, because it was generally believed this fruit is always pure and never corrupted. Bakers used to give out coca (flat bread) to their customers, wax chandlers gave theirs little candles and grocers gave away Hosts.