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Protecting the world's imaginative heritage

Spain is a country full of religious festivals, often with pagan roots, as I discovered when I lived there for three years in the 1970s.

Spain is a country full of religious festivals, often with pagan roots, as I discovered when I lived there for three years in the 1970s. I once spent Holy Week in Seville watching the Easter processions that wound through the city each night, with life-size statues of Christ and the Virgin borne past on jewelry-bedecked floats, and hooded penitents carrying candles.

Another year I stood among the crowds at the Corpus Christi festival in June, when the streets are covered in elaborate flower-petal patterns laid out the night before by thousands of volunteers. I’m not a Catholic, but it was impossible not to be moved by the beauty and mystery of such ancient traditions.

Even today, Spain considers such festivals a vital part of its heritage - so important, in fact, that the government recently opted out of the EU’s safety regulations on fireworks to protect certain ancient traditions involving fire. According to the Minister for Industry, Miguel Sebastian, defending Spain’s cultural heritage is a priority for the government, and therefore no threats to any fiesta by European legislation would be permitted.

The most famous of these fire festivals is Las Fallas (the name derives from the Latin for torch), held in Valencia in March, when gigantic cardboard figures are paraded through the town before being burned in huge bonfires.

Then there’s La Patum de Berga, a fiesta near Barcelona that dates back to the Middle Ages, when fire demons dance in the streets to music and drums. The Patum festival, in fact, is of such significance that it was included in a UNESCO list of 90 cultural masterpieces, a list that includes everything from the ancestral medical techniques of Bolivia’s Kallawaya ethnic group to the Vietnamese court music known as Nha Nhac. (You can find it at

To read through it is to be astounded at the incredible richness and diversity of human creativity and imagination, as well as the tenacity of traditions that in some cases go back into prehistory.

The idea of a traditional ritual or body of knowledge as a cultural masterpiece (and not only a physical object like a painting or a building) is a relatively new one. Six years ago, UNESCO set out to protect such aspects of culture - known as intangible or living heritage - through a new convention, a counterpart to its World Heritage designation for certain historic sites or wilderness areas. But safeguarding culture that, by definition, is imaginary or visionary rather than real or actual is a challenge. How do you define living heritage? And how do you protect something if its location, according to the convention, is “the human mind?”

Intangible cultural heritage, says UNESCO, is “traditional and living at the same time.” It’s also “constantly recreated and mainly transmitted orally.” In other words, it’s knowledge that must be passed on from generation to generation if it is to survive. It includes not only festivals, along with traditional crafts, music, dance, and theatre, but also oral traditions, endangered languages, and traditional knowledge (such as plant medicine).

UNESCO also recognizes that living heritage is under threat, due in part to globalization and the lack of interest by younger generations. Which raises a new question, namely whether such ancient practices are worth preserving. If the young aren’t interested, are we resisting change to hold onto such traditions? Why is it any concern of the world if a festival such as the Patum de Berga - clearly a holdover from a more religiously observant time - dies out?

The cynical among us might point to the usefulness of traditional rites and festivals in attracting tourists. But another answer came to me as I watched a documentary on the yearly preparations for the Corpus Christi festivities. Hundreds of men, women and children in a small Spanish town drew the designs on paper, gathered the petals, and knelt in the street to lay them out the night before. What I saw was the power of ritual to create identity and to draw a community together. Participation in the preparations was the key. Everyone in the community, even the youngest and oldest, could contribute, just as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had in earlier times. At the same time, as a living tradition the flower patterns had to be reinvented anew each year, allowing each generation to bring their own imagination and creativity to the process.

All traditional knowledge, including language, must be similarly renewed if it is to remain vibrant. And each generation must undertake anew the task of learning it through apprenticeship and repetition if it is to last. It’s these living, breathing traditions, rather than, say, a static, semi-ruined building or monument, that enables communities to continue. And it’s why aboriginal communities around the world - including the Yukon - work so hard to maintain their languages, because the loss of language also means the loss of custom, ritual, and history.

It’s easy to romanticize traditional religious festivals like the Patum, and it’s true that, in the past, Spain’s Roman Catholic church was a stifling influence. At the same time, such celebrations and rituals provide transcendence - an opportunity to be lifted out of the humdrum of the everyday, to be merged with others in an experience of great emotional power and beauty. Are we better off without them, in a country like Canada that has no such national traditions (though we welcome the traditions of many others)? Our need to invent rituals where none exist (coming-of-age ceremonies for teenagers, for example) suggests that, at some basic level, we miss their presence.

It’s also arguable that traditional knowledge and ritual retains the power to move all of us because of its sacred origins. I’ve never forgotten one night during Holy Week when, from a balcony near ours, a woman’s voice poured out of the darkness in a traditional saeta - a song of praise to the Virgin. The procession below us came to a complete halt, the candles flickering in the darkness. As the invisible voice plunged and soared, full of emotion, the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. In its basic elements - song, procession, fire - that ritual was as old as time, and at some atavistic level I recognized it as part of my own ancestral heritage, one I shared with all human beings.

Whitehorse writer Patricia

Robertson’s most recent book is The Goldfish Dancer: Stories and

Novellas. Her column appears on the last Friday of each month.