Easter Week in Southern Spain

Semana Santa (Holy Week) is an amazing time to be in Andalucia. In every city and small town, there are nightly processions in the streets. Brass bands play doleful march tunes in minor keys. Large ornate floats (pasos), decorated with flowers and candles and sometimes silver canopies, bear statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. They are proceeded and followed by marchers (Nazarenos) in white capes and tall, pointed, colored hoods that hide all but their eyes. It’s very solemn and eerie.

We saw our first procession on Palm Sunday in Aracena (northwest of Seville) and others later in the week in the little southern hill town of Vejer de la Frontera. The floats were more richly decorated in Aracena, signaling that it was a more prosperous town.

We watched other processions from larger cities—too crowded and expensive this week for us to visit in person—on television. It seems strange to an American to turn on the TV at midnight on, say, the Thursday before Easter to find every station showing live, narrated coverage of religious processions.

The Virgin is dressed in a long flowing cape for Palm Sunday

A great tragedy in Seville: pouring rain cancelled Thursday night’s procession! People who had been practicing for months were in tears (there’s no rain date for Maundy Thursday).

In our little town of Vejer, the Jesus paso was no sooner out of the church door on Thursday night than rain started to fall. With a speed never displayed in the processions themselves, the float was turned and hustled back into the church. Someone in the crowd explained that it’s bad luck to let the statues get rained on, and it spoils the silver on the floats.

These pasos are a marvel of devotion. The large, heavy, rectangular platforms, covered in gold or silver with huge candelabra and vases of flowers, are not mechanized. Instead, they’re carried on the shoulders of 40 to 50 people, whose feet are just visible under the curtains at the base of the floats.

We’ve heard that each carrier bears more than 100 pounds of weight. They start bent down, with the float resting on the ground, and at a signal (a bell or gavel tap), they heft the float into the air and begin to shuffle forward. As they proceed slowly down the street, they sway from side to side, so that the statues, which go by just above head height, appear to be walking.

At each current or former church or convent along the route, the floats turn to face the doorway and do a little “dance” of honor, moving forward, backward, and side to side. With these displays, plus stops to change float-carriers and rest breaks for the band, a two-float procession in a small town like Vejer can easily last four hours. The most devout marchers go barefoot on the cold cobbled streets as a sign of penitence.

Semana Santa ends on a festive note in Vejer with a running of the bulls on Easter day. “Bulls” is a bit of an exaggeration: There are only two bulls running through the streets, one at noon and another at 4 p.m. Even so, crowds gather early on side streets and balconies and rooftops along the bulls’ route.

We found a spot where, by sitting on a wall and hanging onto an iron window grille, we could see over heads to the street. Then we waited and waited, until finally a roar went up in the crowd, and some young men came barreling down the street, followed by a brown blur: the bull. They went by us in less than 10 seconds, and then it was over (unless we wanted to wait in the sun for four hours for the second bull).

But the crowds in town found it as a good an excuse as any to drink beer, laugh with friends, listen to blaring music, and celebrate the end of Lent. At least it had finally stopped raining.

People spent most of the day waiting for the the bull to run.
And then, the bull (if you blinked, you missed it)!

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