The word feria comes from the Latin for "free day", or public holiday, when slaves got the day off and there were no court sessions. With the spread of Christianity across Europe they were hijacked by the Church and turned into religious occasions, often associated with Saints' Days.
In modern Spain, every town has its feria and they can last over a week. Their origins are diverse; some (like the Alcalá feria) are dedicated to the local incarnation of the Virgin Mary, others coincide with horse or cattle fairs, or the end of the harvest of some crop or other. Whatever its origins, these days the feria is mainly just an excuse for a party: music, dancing, fairground attractions, dressing up, drinking and generally having a good time. If the town has a bullring there will be toros - Death in the Afternoon. Some places erect a special portable bullring for the occasion. (Fortunately Alcalá's bullring was long since decommissioned, and the building now contains some interestingly shaped flats.) In Eastern Spain the ferias often include theatrical re-enactments of battles between moros y cristianos, dating back to the Christian reconquest and the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. In many places, Pamplona being the most famous, bulls run loose through the streets. In the fallas of Valencia, they throw fireworks around and burn giant effigies. In Buñol, also in Valencia, they throw several tons of ripe tomatoes at each other.
Alcalá´s celebrations seem mercifully tame in comparison, but it is still a big deal for the locals. Many small shops and businesses are closed during the feria. There will be an opening ceremony in the park on Wednesday night, with a speech by a local bigwig; senior and junior romeras will be appointed in the local equivalent to the Rose of Tralee contest, and the brass band will lead the way down to fairground site where the bigwig will turn on the lights.
At the big ferias like those in Jerez and Sevilla, the serious revelry takes place in private casetas, marquees sponsored by private companies, entrance by invitation only. Alcalá's casetas are sponsored by peñas, or social clubs, and apart from on Members' Night they are open to all. They serve food and drink, and some will have live bands. Last year I saw a notice in one, apologising for having to close at six - a.m. that is, not p.m.!
|DANCING SEVILLANAS IN THE|
|LUNCH ON LADIES´DAY|
|IN THE 1920s THE ALCALA FERIA TOOK PLACE ON THE ALAMEDA|
|THEN IT MOVED TO THE PASEO DE LA PLAYA|
|NOWADAYS JUST THE GATE IS IN THE TOWN CENTRE ...|
|... IT ALL HAPPENS ON THE RECINTO DE FERIA|