If you are anywhere near Elche in the middle of August then you cannot let the Mystery Play pass you by. There are three important dates to put in your diary. On the 13th August it’s La Nit de l’Albà when fireworks and firecrackers are let off in a spectacular display from around the town centre.
On the 14th August the first part of the Mystery Play is performed, portraying the death and assumption of the Virgin Mary. On the 15th the final part of the play is acted out and the fiesta concludes with more fireworks. It is a very special annual event for the town’s people of Elche and the visitors they welcome. Its roots can be traced back to the Middle Ages and it is recognised by the World Heritage Centre.
Nit de L’Albà
The Nit de l’Albà is celebrated on the 13th August. Hundreds of fireworks are prepared to let off during the night. The fireworks are launched from different points in the city and individuals can also set off fireworks during the evening. From around 6.00 pm the noise begins with smaller displays until the official show at 11.00pm.
From 11.00 pm onwards the sky is illuminated across the town. Just before midnight the lights are turned off in Elche and people wait silently for the finale. This is the launching of the palm of the Virgin from the Basilica of Santa Maria whilst ‘the Gloria Patri’ hymn of praise rings out.
The lights are then turned back on again and in the tower of Basilica a small ‘virgin of fire’ appears whilst the crowd listen to the habanera ‘Aromas ilicitanos’ and all of the local people join in to sing along from terraces and balconies.
Watermelon is traditionally eaten at the end of the evening and then the ‘guerra de carretillas’ begins. This is a mock fight with firecrackers and is usually the preserve of locals – you would be well advised to keep your distance if you can.
Nit de la Roà
On the afternoon of the 14th August the first part of the Mystery Play performance takes place. The play is a chanted drama of mediaeval origins which follows through the Virgin Mary’s death, rise and crowning.
There are two acts – the Vespra and the Festa which are played out in the Basilica of Santa Maria. On the 14th it’s the Vespra that takes place as the Virgin dies surrounded by Apostles and her soul ascends to heaven. The town’s people then begin their vigil over the body.
The parts are all played by boys as originally women were not allowed to take part. After Mary’s death the boy who has played her is replaced by the image of the Virgin of the Assumption, patroness of Elche.
The body is taken in procession through the streets of the old town and the route is lined with people carrying candles. It is a night when traditionally you remember sick relatives or the dead and during which feelings and devotions run high.
The second performance, La Festa, is on the 15th with the burial, assumption and coronation of the Virgin Mary. The stage is organised on two levels with a horizontal terrestrial stage and a vertical celestial stage. This is characteristic of historical medieval mystery plays. Approximately 300 volunteers take part in the performance each year.
If you want to see the performance but don’t feel inclined to wait for hours to get a spot then you might like to a buy a ticket and watch instead on either the 11th, 12th or 13th August. The performance is carried out by amateur singers and a choir of children with treble voices.
It is believed that this tradition dates back to the second half of the 15th century and has survived in spite of the prohibition of the performance of mystery plays inside Christian places of worship.
In 2001 UNESCO declared it a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible World Heritage and it became the first Spanish festival to receive this award. It is a living example of European religious theatre and has a very special place in the heart of Elche.