Barcelona adapts its cultural celebrations
Nit de Reis and la Mercè as examples of avoiding cancellation through adaptation to pandemic times
Barcelona has large and diverse annual culture events, which are complex to classify as are events constantly changing in order to adapt to needs and environment. This text will look at some similarities shown by a specific type of cultural festivities held in Barcelona: those celebrations organised by the City Council in collaboration with a multitude of local actors and associations.
Two exemplary cases are la Mercè, an annual festivity associated with the celebration of Barcelona citizenship, and Nit de Reis, an annual celebration related to Christmas and to the arrival of the Three Wise Men at Barcelona to deliver their presents to the children of the city.
During these times, both celebrations have been adapted, changed or transformed considering restrictions applied due to covid-19. These changes and adaptations of festivities offer two examples for future development of events, and it is possible to find several similarities drawing a path in programming further cultural celebrations, for example during recent Sant Antoni celebrations held in January 2021.
One of the most illustrative similarities is, for example, the resistance to cancellation, related with a tendency to reinvent the festivity in order to meet the new covid-19 safety standards and to avoid cancellation. This resistance is especially apparent in those collectives linked to the voluntary involvement needed for these types of festivities. It is commonly understood that in an annual popular celebration, the festivity reflects what has happened throughout the past year, both from a personal and collective frame. And what a year 2020!
This resistance to cancellation was apparent in the changes made to the Toc d’Inici. Toc d’Inici is a particular ritual -created in 1993- where a representation of popular and traditional Calatan culture groups perform after the opening speech of La Mercè, to celebrate the start, the beginning, the explosion of the long-awaited, the starting shot. During the 2020 edition, the Toc d’Inici changed the date, the time, the location, number and role of assistants, the sequence of the ritual and even the name of the event (Toc de la Mercè for 2020). As it was expressed by an anonymous interviewee from Betevé (Barcelona’s public television) in reference to these changes: “This is different, but this is better than nothing”.
Resistance to cancellation is directly related with reinvention. Most of the events usually programmed during these cultural celebrations do not meet the safety standards in pandemic times, so they had two options for covid-19 times edition: reinvention or cancellation.
Reinvention through adaptation to new restrictions has some common patterns in La Mercè, Nit de Reis and Sant Antoni. All mass events have been banned and they have been substituted by smaller-scale acts with less assistance allowed. Differently from previous years, in the 2020 edition visitors needed to book in advance free tickets, to participate in small groups (maximum of 5 people including an adult for La Mercè and Nit de Reis), to use a face mask, to respect the security distance and to wash their hands when they were asked to. Spaces where events happened also generally included a perimeter wall with security workers and fences.
Big efforts have also been made by the organisers and the city council to adapt to the new environment. For example, in Nit de Reis, the traditional parade with The Three Wise Men touring the city was not possible, therefore the organisation ICUB (Council Culture Institute) set up a different event and structure to avoid cancellation. A massive facility was constructed in the public space of Parc del Fòrum (10.000 hectares), a huge and great installation of the cargo of The Three Wise Men and their entourage. It could be visited for a period of 30 minutes by children and families between December 28th and January 5th from 11h to 20h, and approximately 45.000 people visited. As it happened with some of La Mercè events, instead of the parade, during the January 5th night, a live television production was shown on the three public television channels available in Barcelona, including the traditional arrival by sea of the Three Wise Men and a musical performance involving the same imagery as a usual Wise Men parade.
Similar reactions to avoid cancellation through adaptation can be appreciated after La Mercè and Nit de Reis. An illustrative example can be found in Sant Antoni festivities, the first annual cultural celebration in the traditional calendar of Barcelona. Most of the larger planned events within Sant Antoni had to be cancelled or postponed until summer, but the festivity still occurred, incorporating measures already set up in La Mercè and Nit de Reis, such as free pre-ticketing, social distance, fenced perimeters, small groups, face mask and hand washing facilities. Their online move had nothing to do with public television (Sant Antoni is a smaller festivity) but with the launch of interactive games for children via the City Council website and with the creation of special content related with the festivity, mainly via youtube.
Which of these reinventions will remain in the next year’s festivities remains unanswered. Taking into account that more cases and examples are needed to appreciate paths or renovations, these examples illustrate a tendency of measures and changes that we could surely find in other municipalities and events. To conclude, all these similarities found in Barcelona popular culture events are linked with a statement repeated constantly both in media discourse and by stakeholders: “culture is safe”. But it is not that culture is safe per se: sometimes culture can be safe, but sometimes not. People involved in cultural celebrations in Barcelona such as Nit de Reis, La Mercè and Sant Antoni, have had enough wisdom to adapt their activities in order to allow them to happen in a safe environment. Of course, the adaptation has brought deep changes, but as the anonymous interviewee of Barcelona public television said: “this is different, but this is better than nothing”.
 Betevé (2020). El Toc d’Inici manté l’essència lluny de Sant Jaume [online video]. Available from: https://beteve.cat/cultura/toc-inici-merce-2020-coronavirus/ (Accessed 1 February 2021)