It was a Wednesday afternoon in Córdoba, Andalucía as I pushed my way through crowded streets, the hot sun beating down, and everyone in sight drinking already warm cans of Cruzcampo, spitting sunflower seeds into the growing scattered piles on the cobblestone streets. There is a lazy feeling of anticipation in the air, everyone waiting for the main event to start, though they don’t seem too preoccupied with when it will. In fact, people are milling about in the streets, and only when the first hooded figure passes the arched and intricately carved portal from the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba do the parade watchers scatter to the sides and dim their animated conversations.
Still, you might think you are in the midst of a carnival, with the merry that people are making in the late Andalucían sun. Surprisingly though the event is supposedly quite a serious religious ritual that culminates in intensity in this region. Before traveling to the south for Semana Santa (Holy Week), I was warned by many teachers in my school that it was going to be a serious affair with people crying in the streets, breaking out into song: a cultural tradition not to miss. Naturally the anthropologist in me had to see this in person to analyze the ritual significance of everything and soak up an old tradition unlike anything that we have in the United States.
I ended up being surprised, but not in the way I expected. While I did experience more solemn parts of the tradition (such as people crossing themselves and touching the floats as they went by), for the most part, everything I saw in Semana Santa in Andalucía just seemed like a typical example of an old tradition morphed into an excuse to take off from work and drink and spend time with family and friends. Not that there is anything wrong with that – but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting, especially in the city of Sevilla, unofficially declared the heartland of Semana Santa in Spain. I did get my fill of the ritual of the processions though, and enjoyed deducing the meaning behind each person’s role.
A procession is the walk that a religious brotherhoods (hermanedades) makes from their churches or chapels to the main cathedral in the city. They come from the surrounding areas, and sometimes may take up to fourteen hours to reach the destination! The procession has various parts, which remains the same no matter which congregation is marching. First comes the Guiding Cross (Cruz de Guía):
Following the cross bearers are a large amount of people dressed in a long robe and pointy hood (capirote). Some of them are barefoot, but all of them carry tall candles that are lit at night to guide their way. These people are called nazarenos.
Before the procession began, we were waiting by the side of the street people watching and noticed a number of children carrying what looked to be giant balls of spit out gum on a stick. Ew! We soon learned however, that these balls were their way of participating in the procession: when the nazarenos stopped (which was frequent – another thing that puzzled us at first), the children ran up to them and held out the ball-on-a-stick. Turns out it was candle wax! So the kids got to entertain themselves while keeping the hot wax from spilling over onto the hands of the nazarenos (at least I’m imagining it to be a symbiotic relationship, maybe it was just for the kids to give them something to do) .
After this group comes altar boys and acolytes and finally, the main event, the float made of wood or paso, accompanied by a marching (maybe too active a word, more like shuffling) band playing somber tunes. Most processions I saw had the marching band in the back.
The first paso is Jesus, either on the cross or carrying the cross, sometimes with other figures to create a scene – on one, there was even a mini tree!
During the day the float was impressive, and definitely quieted the crowd (the band helped with this too), but during the night, it was imposing and dramatic, lit up with candles, gliding through the night accompanied by musical undertakers.
After the float bearing Jesus and its band came more nazarenos and then another, perhaps even more remarkable float: that of the Virgin Mary. The first time I saw this float I had walked down to the hostel lobby to get some dinner recommendations and I gasped out loud as I saw the hundreds of lit candles stopped just outside the hostel door. Seeing it up front rather than coming down the road and passing by was perhaps the most jarring way to meet this firey paso. All the candles are white, as are the hundreds of fresh flowers that surround her, as the somber figure rises out of this cloud of white, tragic face and long robe that trails down after her onto the ground. Her dignity and sadness can be felt by even someone who is not religious in the least.
Now these tremendous floats do not actually float on their own through the city streets, no matter how much trouble the parade organizers go through to make this appear to be the case. I have to admit that it took me embarrassingly long to figure out how they were actually moving, I guess I just assumed that they moved the same way floats in the United States do – with cars and wheels.
NOT IN SPAIN.
We had been seeing hoards of burly looking men with burlap sacks looking things on their heads and necks wandering the streets, and at times pushing through the parade crowds, seemingly having somewhere to go, unlike the rest of the watchers. Continued confusion at seeing them in bars and walking around at night until we actually had 2+2 put together literally in front of us as the float was set down, the velvet skirt lifted up, and 90 degree sauna heat rose up from under it as forty men were given drinks of water and some were switched out. That’s when it clicked: they were the float bearers, and not for some little dinky float, but as we discovered later, something that can weigh up to a metric ton.
Just…baffled. Now the sight of them with beers in hand made sense, and I really hope that these dudes drank for free for the entire week, because they deserve it. Maybe even the week before too to get prepared and the week after as a reward. Because there is no way I can imagine resting that heavy wooden float with candles, flowers, figures, and every other imaginable religious regalia on my SHOULDERS without needing quite a stiff drink. Now I understood why there was so many men in the marching band – still participate in the procession, don’t break your back. In fact, in class upon returning, my students told me that this year quite a few Virgins fell as the men either tripped and fell or the coordination was off. Still, one of my students still said he still wanted to do it, and he’s not even religious! Which I guess shows how important the feeling of community spirit is in the processions, rather than the religious factor at this point when the Catholicism of Spain is declining in the younger generations. We were wondering what kind of incentive was given to the procession participants, as a lot of the robed figures seemed to be teenagers, and the acolytes were young children, some of them seeming to be no more than five years old.
Both in and outside the procession, devout women dress all in black with a lace mantle (la mantilla) and a comb to keep it up. To me it seemed that most of the women wearing this were married, hanging on the arm of their well dressed husband, but whether this was a factor due to age or custom, I’m not sure (anyone have any answers?). But even the women who weren’t wearing the traditional black were formally dressed, throughout the city, Thursday and Friday, and probably into the weekend as well (we left Friday night).
But they weren’t the only ones: men wore suits and young children were dressed like mini adults, with tights, bows, suits, and impeccably done hair (often in matching outfits even if they weren’t twins). After talking to a Spanish teacher who I work with, she explained that people in Sevilla are quite well dressed as a rule, dressing up to go to bullfights, wearing fur coats in the winter even though it doesn’t get cold enough to warrant it, and parading through town on Sunday afternoons so they can judge and be judged. Perhaps this was one of the reasons I didn’t feel like I could connect with Sevilla – formal dress is in no way my thing, and all the fuss seemed way too old fashioned to me. But she’s just one person – if anyone have any opinions on the dressing habits of sevillianos I’d be happy to hear!
Ever experience a cultural or religious festival utterly different from anything you’d seen before? Any people from/living in Sevilla want to weigh in on my impressions?