Vitoria-Gasteiz—Festival of the Virgen Blanca (White Virgin)

The Festival of La Blanca is characterized by the lively participation of the townspeople, who organize themselves into groups called “blusas” (“blouses”)

The groups known as “blusas,” due to the dark-colored garment they wear over their white outfits, are at the center of this six-day festival that lasts from August 4th to 9th. They take to the city’s streets and plazas, and their presence guarantees a series of fun-filled, spirited activities; the blusas also brighten up the official ceremonies of the week. Until the late 19th century, the Vitoria Festival took place during the first week of September, but in 1884 the city government decided to move it to coincide with the celebration of the Virgen Blanca on August 5th. In 1953, the festival’s six-day schedule was solidified, beginning on August 4th. On that day, the heart of the people of Vitoria and the pulse of the city itself come together in the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca to kick off the festivities, which since 1957 have begun with a unique ceremony: the descent of Celedón.

La Virgen Blanca
Lugareños y visitantes observando la bajada

The character of Celedón is based on a man named Celedonio Alzola from the village of Zalduendo de Álava who would attend the Vitoria Festival every year. He celebrated with an enthusiasm and joy that were contagious, and a group of friends decided to preserve his memory by incorporating him into the opening ceremony. After the idea of using a parachutist was rejected for technical reasons, it was decided that Celedón would descend into the plaza from the tower of San Miguel Church. The descent consists of two parts. First, a Celedón doll dressed in traditional garb and holding an open umbrella floats down to a balcony, suspended on a cord. There, an actor playing Celedón emerges wearing the same outfit as the doll and goes down to the street, makes his way through the crowd, and heads to the church’s balcony, where he encourages the audience to have fun during their celebration. His invitation might seem a bit unnecessary for this crowd as they celebrate the descent of Celedón by lighting cigars and uncorking thousands of bottles of champagne.

That night, the most traditional and devout townspeople attend the Procession of the Rosary, also known as the Procession of the Lanterns, which first took place in 1895. This procession honors the Virgen Blanca and it involves prayers and religious songs. As the name suggests, 267 polychrome glass lanterns are lit, representing the mysteries, the Our Father, and the Hail Mary. The lanterns are on display every day in the Museum of Lanterns, alongside floats and religious images. Hours later, at 7:00 in the morning on August 5th, the Dawn Procession of the Rosary begins.

The Vitoria Festival is full of performances, concerts by musicians from all around Spain, and street festivals, so it offers something for everyone. The festivities take place in various venues scattered throughout the city, although the old town is always the epicenter of the celebration, as this is where the series of orchestras and charanga bands perform. Street markets, carnival rides, and vendor stands are set up in the city. Bull fights are held in the afternoon, and at night the city is illuminated by fireworks. The city also holds championships for various sports as well as traditional Basque cultural activities such as pelota games, trikiti concerts (a traditional Basque diatonic accordion), and the bertsolaritza championship (the art of improvising songs in the Basque language).

On August 7th, Celedón Txiki takes place, which is a reenactment of the descent of Celedón aimed at the town’s children, for whom there is always a full program of activities. The following day, on the 8th, homage is paid to the veteran blusas. Nostalgia abounds as the streets are filled with elderly townspeople dressed in 1960s garb.

La Virgen Blanca
Bajada del Celedón

The Festival of the Virgen Blanca draws to an end on August 9th, with Celedón concluding the celebration as he returns to the sky, ascending to the tower of San Miguel from which he descended six days earlier to encourage the crowd to enjoy their partying. As has already been noted, the people of Vitoria, organized into over 2,000 blusas, are the true lifeblood of the celebration. To get themselves warmed up before the festival starts, the blusas celebrate their own holiday, Blusa Day, on July 25th. After a tribute to those who came before them, they kick off the festivities, which include a donkey race on a track that is set up in the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca and the Paseíllo de los Toros, a parade accompanied by a charanga band and groups of txistus (a traditional Basque flute) which wind through the streets of the old town throughout the afternoon and evening.

In a happy coincidence, the Santiago Agricultural Festival also takes place, with a display of select livestock heads, a flea market, and a variety of agricultural products for sale. The festival draws thousands of visitors from all around Spain. Also, every July 25th, the people of Vitoria have a tradition of buying strings of garlic from the numerous stands that are set up on Cuesta de San Francisco and Calle de San Francisco.

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