Living Traditions

July 2007

A unique beauty surrounds the ancient city of Zamora when they celebrate Semana Santa. Their Holy Week is an occasion that is very genuine and very somber. Zamora is an agricultural city with roots in the soil. Their vineyards provide some of the finest wine in Spain, and their sheep’s milk produces the excellent Zamorano cheese. Located in northwest Spain near the Portuguese border, Zamora’s stone battlements remain as witness to the many key conflicts that affected the history of Castile, Leon, and Spain as a nation. 

When my wife Ruth and I arrived in Zamora for Holy Week this year, the sincerity of the people was unmistakable. Semana Santa was a serious event in their lives. As an act of humility, some choose to walk bare-footed during the processions. Yet we experienced something more: the power of an all-absorbing tradition as the entire citizenry worked in concert to express the values they share. 

The strength and tradition of Zamora is reflected in the weeklong observance of the last days of Jesus on earth. This central event mobilizes the life of the city. Various merchants provide artfully designed guidebooks and pamphlets so that the observers of Semana Santa will know exactly where each of the processions will begin, and the route that each will follow.

The closest we have to this kind of civic involvement in America may be our preparations for Independence Day, especially in smaller cities and towns where citizens plan the Fourth of July parade and accompanying festivities with great care, and involve a broad spectrum of people.

In Zamora, virtually all of the processions pass through the narrow cobblestone streets within the city walls. A very dramatic one winds its way from the fortified cliffs down to the riverbank, passing by a medieval bridge, near the remnants still in the river of the bridge built by the Romans. It is a particularly solemn procession, with incense, subdued drums, and music in a minor key. 

Ruth and I had hardly dropped off our suitcases before we were caught up in the drama of Holy Week. Before we knew it, we were involved in a profound ritual enacted annually for over a thousand years. Hundreds and hundreds of men and boys were filing down the main boulevard, clothed in penitential robes and hoods, carrying long flickering tapers. 

The focal point of each procession is the paso carried by members of the confraternity. A large hardwood platform displays a hand carved life sized tableau which represents one of the mysteries of the last days of Jesus' life. It is lifted up on the backs forty or fifty strong men, and carried for many hours along the narrow streets, with barely a pause. The rest of the penitentes accompany their paso wearing robes and hoods in colors unique to their brotherhood. My wife and I were amazed to see that a few fathers had their sons walking by their sides in robes – some under five years old!

Now and then, you see a typically Spanish touch. If you looked closely, you might notice a man in the procession discreetly slipping caramelos (wrapped candies) to the children in the crowd! 

One of the longest processions involves a route of many miles. Over five thousand men and a few young boys escort several dramatic hand carved pasos as they pass through just about every neighborhood in the city. You can imagine the sight of all these men of Zamora in somber procession. We were beginning to wonder how these people could survive such a long ordeal, when, in a perfect Spanish touch, the procession ground to a halt in the Cathedral plaza.

The men lowered their pasos, removed their hoods, and enjoyed an informal merienda (picnic) with their friends and family – perhaps a chunk of chorizo, some sheep’s milk cheese and a little wine brought from home. Suitably refreshed, they donned their hoods, hoisted their pasos and continued on their penitential path. 

What impressed me most was that virtually every person in this small city, from toddlers to pensioners, participates in this community event every year of their lives. The night before Good Friday there is a procession involving thousands of men and boys silently walking all night through the winding cobblestone streets of Zamora until the early hours of the morning. Later, in the dusk of Good Friday over four thousand women and their daughters process together in candlelight accompanied by a small band. On Easter morning, joyous townspeople fill the Plaza Mayor to witness the climactic procession of the Resurrection.

This is the power of tradition. It provides a unity of spirit among the people of Zamora. There were posters and banks of flowers around us. We savored steaming sopa de ajo (garlic soup) served us in commemorative terra cotta cups by the bartender of a neighborhood café. We rarely saw anybody but Spaniards. Clearly, this was not a tourist production. 

In many ways there is nothing we do in America that parallels this celebration that takes place throughout Spain each Holy Week. We neither have the centuries of tradition, nor in most cases, the stability of families living in one place for many generations. Nevertheless, we do have a flavor of this kind of community solidarity. 

On Independence Day last week, I am sure some of you experienced the kind of common effort that small towns in rural America still expend to create an old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration. I know many of our friends, their children and grandchildren lined the streets of our hometown of Williamsburg and neighboring Yorktown waving flags and eating hot dogs. 

As in Zamora, the prime focus is on a parade that involves local people representing various groups devoted to service such as the Red Cross or the Kiwanis. Alongside are marching civic leaders, school bands, veterans of past wars and perhaps small contingents of soldiers from the National Guard and other uniformed services – just as in Zamora. 

To be sure, I am not equating a patriotic parade with a religious event in terms of the values they represent. However, I am saying that when people come together in a common enterprise devoted to commemorating the values they hold dear, there is a certain health and strength that sustains them long after the parade or procession is over and the marchers go home.

Tu amigo,