Semana Santa - Profound Spain

Don Harris | March 2013

To truly participate in the culture of a select group of people, such as the people of Spain, it is important to honor their way of living that has developed over thousands of years. Their way of life and values have been influenced by Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Phoenicians, Berbers, Celt-Iberians, Byzantines and more. So even the concept of a "Spanish culture" is too broad. Yet it is this very variety of ways of life within the Spanish borders that I find most appealing.

One event that is shared throughout all the regions of Spain is Semana Santa (Holy Week): the six days that lead up to Easter. Whether or not you share their faith, or are among those there simply to share the experience, the dramatic reenactment of the last days of Jesus’ life on earth is woven into the fabric of Spain. Ruth and I personally feel renewed, even though, in our case, these traditions are very different from our own.

Central to the week-long observation are the processions with realistic life-size wooden images of the events of Christ’s Passion carried on pasos, mahogany platforms adorned with gold or silver leaf. Punctuated by the clack of staffs on the pavement, the progress of the pasos are labored as they wind through the main thoroughfares so that thousands of people may participate with joy, passion, fraternity and penitence; a mix of feelings that can be contagious.

Since the paso may weigh up to two tons, scores of strong young men are enlisted to carry each paso for many miles along an established route. In Córdoba, for example, the route of the processions is not too long, taking 6-8 hours. However, in Sevilla some of the processions last 10-12 hours, quite the penitential march!

Under the paso there may be thirty costaleros at any one time, with many more men awaiting the privilege to relieve their brothers, so that no one has to assume the burden for all the hours of the procession. The costaleros are only able to travel a few yards at a time before it is necessary to pause to renew their strength. Many costaleros roll heavy towels about their necks to lessen the pain.

Almost every family has at least one person who is a member of a hermandad, or brotherhood,often it may be father and son together. Normally someone who joins the hermandad is personally devoted to the image that is carried on the paso, or is part of the parish where the hermandad is located.

My dear friend Alejandro, a young man from Córdoba, explained how he counted the years until he was eighteen years old and could join the hermandad of his local parish. He told me, “There is a strong feeling that makes a man decide to belong to a brotherhood: not only devotion, but also family tradition or special faith.”

Another way to participate in the nightly processions is as a nazareno, one of the penitents who precede the paso. Typically they wear a full-length black or purple robe and cover their faces with a cubrerrostro, or hood, so as not to call attention to their personal piety. One of the most appealing things we saw were nazareno fathers with their little sons processing together in the same type of dress, the boy without a hood. Also in the procession are the ciriales, four people who carry high beeswax candles immediately preceding the paso.

Months before Semana Santa, all the hermandades, whatever their role in the procession, start preparing: they select the flowers they’re going to put on the paso, they look for a band of trumpets, bugles and drums to play their marchas; they lay out the route they’re following on the day of their procession. The costaleros start making “dry runs” carrying the paso in order to be ready.

The different areas of Spain differ in their expressions of Semana Santa. In the north, the observance appears to be more serious and solemn. On the other hand the influence of the Moors is very evident in Andalucía. They were initially a blend of Middle Eastern Arabs and fierce Berber tribesmen from North Africa who crossed from Morocco to the Spanish port of Tarífa. The invading force, of course, was made up of young men, so that within just one generation they had fully intermarried into the local population. 

Historians say that the mixing was so thorough that it was hard to distinguish them from the local Christians except by their religion. This differentiation is probably one reason why Semana Santa and the week-long processions became so important to the identity of the Christian Spaniards. After all, the Muslims occupied parts of Spain for over 700 years! In sunny Andalucía, the processions are filled with raw emotion, such as men and women breaking out in soulful saeta songs whose origins are likely Middle Eastern.

My wife Ruth and I have experienced several Semana Santa celebrations in the past few years. This year we have decided to visit some rural villages in Castilla-León. In some ways the towns do not look much different than they did in medieval times. For hundreds of years this region in Northern Spain was the major battleground for the Christian Reconquista. The landscape is dotted with dramatic castles indicative of a culture of war and struggle. We look forward to seeing how the observance differs from the others we have enjoyed.

Observing Semana Santa among the people of Zamora, in western Spain, made an indelible impression on Ruth and me. It seemed as if everybody, from the smallest little boy or girl to the most elderly, were totally involved in the processions. It was serious business and a communal effort that radiated an air of solemnity among the cobblestone streets. I like to think of the scores of sublime Romanesque churches as having been silent witnesses of the events of this ancient city for over a thousand years.

Another Semana Santa that is high on our list is that of the city of Cuenca, perched high on a cliff in Castilla-La Mancha. We drove barely two hours from the Madrid airport, but when we got there we entered another world, of houses hanging over the cliff, of narrow winding stone streets that ascend to the Plaza Mayor and the Anglo-Norman Cathedral built in 1182.

What makes Cuenca’s Semana Santa unique is the rolling sound of snare drums reverberating down the narrow streets and stone buildings. The streets are barely wide enough for the pasos and marchas with their snare drums to navigate. We were able to see the hooded penitentes close at hand on narrow sidewalks, as we clung to sides of the buildings along the route. The pasos swayed from side to side due to the steps of the costaleros -- it almost gave a life-like dimension to the images. The punctuation of the men striking their staffs on the cobblestones added a further dimension of solemnity.

As a counterpoint, Cuenca offered a week-long international festival of religious music. The various performances occurred all day until early evening when the processions began. We heard the voices of fifty boys from El Monasterio del Escorial singing Gregorian chants; and the haunting songs of a handful of young women from the Beguinage in Bruges, Belgium, whose clear tones of XIIC polyphony enveloped us as we sat in the medieval church.

For us, perhaps the most dramatic of all the Semana Santa events occurred early on Good Friday morning. Through the misty dawn we saw the image of Jesus, on His way to Calvary. He entered the Cathedral Plaza on His paso, the weight of which was carried on the strong backs of twenty or thirty men. 

The drumming reached a crescendo as the crowd started jeering at the stooped figure of Jesus weighed down by His cross -- just as did the crowd in Jerusalem two thousand years earlier. Adding to the chilling drama was when the snare drummers started clacking their drumsticks together; then they formed them into the shape of a cross and pushed them aggressively toward the image of Jesus. 

This year we hope to experience something quite different. We will go to a very rural part of León, and stay in the tiny village of Maderuelo with a population of 156 souls. It is still encircled by walls built for protection from the Moors -- whom they vanquished centuries before. We anticipate the Semana Santa rituals of this tiny town will be pure and simple.

From Good Friday to Easter Sunday, we will stay in the neighboring town of Peñafiel where the ruins of a magnificent XIII C castle shelter a town of 5,000 people. On Easter morning the celebration of Christ’s resurrection begins in the Plaza de España, when bells and rockets announce the beginning of the procession of the image of the Virgin from the Church of Santa María.

When the procession gets to the Plaza del Coso (which also serves as a bull ring on other occasions), a crowd gathers to witness the moment an angel (a young boy) "flies" between two towers of the church to the image of the Virgin (with the help of pulleys).

As the “angel” descends from Heaven he releases two doves; and when he gets to the image of the Virgin, he removes her veil, symbolizing the end of her mourning. The procession then continues to the Parish Church of San Miguel de Reoyo, where the pasos of the Virgin Mother and the Resurrected Son are reunited and the Holy Sacrament awaits under a canopy. We hope to share photos on La Tienda’s Facebook page soon thereafter.

In Zamora we saw the same event: the joyful reunion of Mother and Son. On Easter Sunday the Virgin, dressed in white, enters the Plaza Mayor where her Son, the Risen Christ, meets her. It is a joyful occasion, with flower-adorned pasos laden with carnations and roses and those in the processions carrying florally decorated staffs, no longer hidden beneath robes and hoods. 

As you can see, it is not a time for Easter eggs or even a Sunrise Service in which we might participate in America; instead we see the distinct Spanish emphasis on the family, Mother and Son, which is the bedrock of the culture of Spain. Springtime with all its flowers and ferias is a perfect season to engage the Spanish people in a meaningful way. I cannot think of a better way to leave the frantic pace of modern life and get lost in another time.

¡Feliz Pascua!