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

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.

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

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.

READ ALSO: Antisemitism row breaks out after Spanish town stages Holocaust parade for carnival

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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For members


Five signs you’ve settled into life in Switzerland

Getting adjusted to Swiss ways is not always easy for foreign nationals, but with a lot of perseverance it can be done. This is how you know you’ve assimilated.

Five signs you've settled into life in Switzerland
No lint: Following laundry room rules is a sign of integration in Switzerland. Photo by Sara Chai from Pexels

Much has been said about Switzerland’s quirkiness, but when you think about it, this country’s idiosyncrasies are not more or less weird than any other nation’s — except for the fact that they are expressed in at least three languages which, admittedly, can complicate matters a bit.

However, once you master the intricacies and nuances of Swiss life, you will feel like you belong here.

This is when you know you’ve “made it”.

You speak one of the national languages, even if badly

It irritates the Swiss to no end when a foreigner, and particularly an English-speaking foreigner, doesn’t make an effort to learn the language of a region in which he or she lives, insisting instead that everyone communicates to them in their language.

So speaking the local language will go a long way to being accepted and making you feel settled in your new home.

You get a Swiss watch and live by it

Punctuality is a virtue here, while tardiness is a definite no-no.

If you want to ingratiate yourself to the Swiss, be on time. Being even a minute late  may cause you to miss your bus, but also fail in the cultural integration.

‘The pleasure of punctuality’: Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?

Using an excuse like “my train was late” may be valid in other countries, but not in Switzerland.

The only exception to this rule is if a herd of cows or goats blocks your path, causing you to be late.

A close-up of a Rolex watch in Switzerland.

Owning a Rolex is a sure sign you’re rich enough to live in Switzerland. Photo by Adam Bignell on Unsplash

You sort and recycle your trash

The Swiss are meticulous when it comes to waste disposal and, not surprisingly, they have strict regulations on how to throw away trash in an environmentally correct manner.

Throwing away all your waste in a trash bag without separating it first — for instance, mixing PET bottles with tin cans or paper — is an offence in Switzerland which can result in heavy fines, the amount of which is determined by each individual commune.

In fact, the more assiduous residents separate every possible waste item — not just paper, cardboard, batteries and bottles (sorted by colour), but also coffee capsules, yogurt containers, scrap iron and steel, organic waste, carpets, and electronics.

In fact, with their well-organised communal dumpsters or recycling bins in neighbourhoods, the Swiss have taken the mundane act of throwing out one’s garbage to a whole new level of efficiency.

So one of the best ways to fit in is to be as trash-oriented as the Swiss.

READ MORE: Eight ways you might be annoying your neighbours (and not realising it) in Switzerland

You trim your hedges with a ruler

How your garden looks says a lot about you.

If it’s unkempt and overgrown with weeds, you are clearly a foreigner (though likely not German or Austrian).

But if your grass is cut neatly and your hedges trimmed with military-like precision (except on Sundays), and some of your bushes and shrubs are shaped like poodles,  you will definitely fit in.

You follow the laundry room rules

If you live in an apartment building, chances are there is a communal laundry room in the basement that is shared by all the residents.

As everything else in Switzerland, these facilities are regulated by a …laundry list of “dos” and “don’ts” that you’d well to commit to memory and adhere to meticulously.

These rules relate to everything from adhering to the assigned time slot to removing lint from the dryer.

Following each rule to the letter, and not trying to wash your laundry in someone else’s time slot, is a sign of successful integration.

Voilà, the five signs you are “at home” in Switzerland.

READ MORE: French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local