Barcelona’s biggest annual festival is commemorating its 150th anniversary. The first La Mercè that was planned as an event for everyone and for the whole of the city was held in 1871. This year’s celebrations recall that event, and reclaim some of the festival’s historical spaces.
In fact, the day that honours the Verge de la Mercè, the city’s patron saint, had already been celebrated long before. It all began in 1218, when, according to legend, the Mare de Déu de la Mercè [the Virgin Mary] was supposed to have appeared before King James I of Aragon, St Peter Nolasco and St Raymond of Penyafort. Centuries later, in 1687, the city invoked the protection of that same Mare de Déu de la Mercè when faced with a plague of locusts. And, once the calamity had been overcome, the Consell de la Ciutat [the municipal government at the time] chose La Mercè as the city’s patron saint.
It took centuries before the Vatican, under Pope Pius IX, recognised her as the patron saint of Barcelona. He did so in 1868, but in those days commemorations in honour of La Mercè were eminently religious in nature. It was Francesc de Paula Rius i Taulet who turned out to be the driving force behind the first La Mercè festival, during his stint as City Councillor before becoming Mayor; the festival became a civic event in 1871 and included popular celebrations intended for the city’s residents.
The festivities, which began on 24 September that year and continued to the start of October, featured human-tower displays (not yet known as castells), performed by the Xiquets de Valls, sardana-dancing performed by coblas [traditional Catalan music ensembles], dancers who had come down expressly from Empordà, moixigangas [gymnastic dancing], stick dancing from Vilafranca, gegants [giant figures representing kings and queens], music performed with grallas [Catalan reed instruments], flutes and tambourines, horse-riding competitions, swimming races, fireworks and even a general exhibition from the four Catalan provinces that took place at what was at that time the new university building.
The celebrations did not continue to be held annually, but the idea of turning Barcelona’s La Mercè into a major popular festival that would bring together elements of popular culture from different parts of Catalonia came up once again in 1902, this time at the behest of the then City Councillor, Francesc Cambó.
El Passeig de Gràcia, a setting for popular culture
The history of Barcelona’s biggest festival has been marked by political circumstances. And, although it was rarely celebrated during the 1920s and 1930s, the Francoist dictatorship used it to showcase folklore and the most traditional and religious aspects. The 1950s and 1960s saw the revival of the festival’s artistic and popular aspects, a strengthening of its folkloric side and the establishment of activities that are classics today, such as the choral concerts performed by the Clavé Choirs, the sardana-dance groups competition and a procession that paraded not along the Rambla but among other places along Passeig de Gràcia, a street that to mark the 150th anniversary of the festival is being reclaimed this year as a space dedicated to popular culture.
In this 150th anniversary year, on Passeig de Gràcia there will be displays of popular culture, fireworks and the classic procession, as well as the odd commemorative surprise in the form of an exhibition to be held in different locations within the city. It consists of four big cubes that you’ll find there on 24 September, and looks back at the history of a festival that’s celebrating an important anniversary this year through photographs and posters. If you missed it, on Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 September head for the Parc de la Ciutadella, the Parc de Joan Miró, or the Palau de la Virreina.
The local authorities during the transition period and the first democratic city councils renewed the structure of La Mercè, giving rise to celebrations centred on Mediterranean culture which today combine concerts, street shows, public displays and tradition. The traditional events were revitalised and given a renewed energy in the 1990s, thanks to celebrities such as the late musician and composer Jordi Fàbregas (1951-2021), the creator of the traditional group Els Ministrils del Camí Ral. There will be a tribute to him at the start of this year’s event.