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Old Spanish Days Fiesta: Yesterday and Today

For many Santa Barbarans, the annual event has become a longtime family tradition

Santa Barbara’s Fiesta began as a series of parties held in the summer months of each year.

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In the country: In the 1820s to 1840s, most people lived on ranches. To help one another with large-scale chores — barn building, harvest, or round-up and branding — ranch families traveled to other ranches of the surrounding area. Because of great distances, they stayed for several days. During daylight hours, everyone helped with chores.

Evenings were dedicated to fiestas. Barbecues would be lit, and a side of beef put on the spit. They would pull out the guitars, sing, dance, eat, and enjoy friends and family that they had few opportunities to visit.

In the town: As the pueblo of Santa Barbara grew, the custom became even more popular — less travel, more parties — and the tradition of fiestas grew and prospered.

The weather in Santa Barbara makes outdoor entertaining the best — more room, more guests, especially in summer. People gathered regularly in groups of 100 or more to play the music and dance the dances of Early California, share refreshments, and enjoy friends and family. People made the rounds from one party to the next.

In 1924, Old Spanish Days Fiesta organized as a community-service nonprofit organization to raise money for local charities, educate the public about the history and traditions of the Early California cultures that inhabited, colonized, founded missions, military outposts, ranches and pueblos that became modern cities.

The first Fiestas offered contests such as beard- and whiskers-growing contests, a queen contest, bed races, an aerobatics show, various types of athletic contests in addition to the equestrian parade, the Mexican flower and vegetable market, and street dances. Some of the private parties were made public. One, the Castro Family Party, existed until the late 1980s. Another, the free Sunken Garden shows at the courthouse, remains today.

In 1925, a severe earthquake shook Santa Barbara. After Fiesta’s first success, the citizens created an Architectural Board of Review and decided to rebuild the town in the style of Mediterranean Spain.


» The Equestrian Parade has developed into the largest all-equestrian parade in the nation.

» The Mexican flower and vegetable market evolved into Mercado de la Guerra and Mercado Del Norte, where more than 50 local service groups raise funds for charities in food booths providing Fiesta with traditional flavor favorites. The two marketplaces raise about $500,000 for area charities each year.

» The culture continues with singing, dancing and colorful costumes at the opening ceremonies called “La Fiesta Pequeña” at the Old Mission, then three more nights at the Courthouse Sunken Garden.

» The Dignatarios Party at the Santa Barbara Zoo could be called a “horse of a different color,” known as Fiesta’s wildest party.

» Saturday is kids’ day with a special parade for the under-15 set. Floats made and decorated by neighborhood kids are pulled by moms, dads or any large pets that will cooperate. Kids in imaginative costumes — such as tacos and chili peppers, bulls in two parts, Chumash canoes on red wagons, Yankee covered wagons, and sleeping bullfighters with penciled-on mustaches — bring unexpected delights.

» Childrens’ variety show, Tardes de Ronda, follows at the Courthouse Sunken Garden.

» 150 Fiesta Flower Girls ages 7 to 15, the official Hostesses of Fiesta, visit area hospitals and residences, taking flowers and “Fiesta Spirit” to the elderly and infirm. They walk in both parades, and greet dignitaries at the opening ceremonies and the zoo party.

Throughout the town, there is a feeling of family reunion during Fiesta Week. Many fiesteros now number into the fourth and fifth generations. For many Santa Barbarans, it’s all about the memories.

— Diana Vandervoort is a third-generation producer of Fiesta courthouse shows, a second-generation Fiesta Board member and ninth-generation Santa Barbaran, and Ortega family descendant.

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