A Spanish Easter With Giles Brown
No other country in Europe, nay, the world does Easter like Spain. Forget trying to celebrate Easter in northern Europe and in the UK, you are probably now banned from doing so under Sharia law.
For your average northern European child, Easter has no become another, once profoundly religious celebration swamped under a crass commercial tidal wave of naffness. Like Christmas, now called Winterval in some workplaces in the UK so as not to upset Ahmed in accounts, the true meaning of Easter, the most dramatically and powerful period of Christ’s life, representing, incredible pain, suffering, betrayal and the resurrection, not to mention the not inconsiderable matter of the victory of eternal life over death, has been lost due to commercialism.
If you asked your average British youth what he though Easter was about, he would probably reply, after finishing his alcopop, that it was something to do with Jesus being put to death by chocolate bunnies, hot cross buns or painted boiled eggs, or combination of the three. Let’s face it, the only musings on life that your everyday council estate scrote is likely to have during Easter is when he finds out that his 13 year old girlfriend is two months pregnant after the St Valentines party…
But I digress, Semana Santa is one of the highlights of the year in Spain, and Andalucia is the place to experience it. Holy Week in Seville is the big one and attracts the most coverage from the television stations, although with Antonio Banderas making his annual pilgrimage to take part in the processions this week, watched on from an upstairs balcony by new squeeze Nicole Kimpel, Malaga runs it a close second.
Just in case you’ve landed in Andalucia from Planet Guiri, Semana Santa is basically a week of elaborate processions of intricate floats. The term floats is a little misleading as each way a tonne and are carried throughout town by about 40 men, the costaleros, who are hidden underneath the thing. It’s not a job for the faint hearted and the costaleros wear a headpiece like a large inside out sock, thickly padded around the head and the neck, white T-shirt and dark cotton trousers, a little like a gang of devout and muscular smurfs. Families crowd around the floats when they stop to offer their sons/brothers/cousins encouragement and water.
Each float depicts a biblical scene, usually in Christ being whipped, the cat o nine tails beads slapping against each other as they move along. The figures on the floats themselves are normally rendered in what an art critic could describe as “Late Catholic Renaissance Suffering Style”, plenty of detail in the crown of thorns, beads of blood, open wounds and the agonised expression of Christ himself. Happy Clappy Christianity this is not.
And then, of course, there are the Virgins. You can’t have a good procession in Andalucia without a Virgin floating by every so often. While the more cynical amongst you may debate the improbability in locating a Virgin anywhere near the Costa del Sol, in Seville, for example, they take their Virgins very seriously. There is the Virgin del Cachorro (no, I don’t understand why she’s called of the puppy either) as well as the Virgin de la O (so called because the first thing the Virgin said when She gave birth was “O”. Alas, no one could tell me what the second thing was, which makes for a fun Easter time game of Semana Santa Blankety Blank, I can imagine). And then there are the two heavyweight Virgins in Seville, the Ali and Frasier of the float world if you like. The Virgin of Hope of Triana and her great rival the Virgin of Hope of the Macarena, (no, you can’t do the dance when she passes) who, because of the rain a few years ago, where diverted and by chance came face to face with each other in an alley for the first ever time. You can only imagine the conversation that they must have had. “This town is only big enough for one Virgin etc”
It’s a moving experience and with some of the processions in silence while at others people cry out “guapa! guapa!” or sing to the Virgin Mary. This is not, I repeat NOT the time to try out your bar room Spanish or an impromptu version of Una Paloma Blanca. The locals would set upon you, the streets are crowded and the police and ambulance services would never make it to you on time.
Perhaps the best known image of Semana Santa, however, are the Nazarenos, people cloaked in the traditional costume of repentance, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the KKK. As well as this there are also priests swinging incense everywhere, and a band in front of each float that plays music. With more than 50 processions through Seville during Holy Week, it’s a good idea to grab a guide (found at any kiosk or supermarket) to know which procession is where and when, etc. All processions leave from their church, make their way through the city and towards the cathedral, then go back to their church, when the procession ends with the costeleros placing the float down in its place at their church where it won’t be touched until the next year.
Of course, if the thought of standing in a crowd is all too much for you, then you can also follow the example of many in Seville and watch the whole thing on television with a bowl of olives and fino to hand. Giralda TV broadcasts live coverage and all the national channels have reports from Seville. Even the chat shows get in on the act, normally discussing what El Banderas was doing. And if you’re a real die hard Semana Santa fan, you can even take home DVDs of the proceedings. The sacred week over, Seville slowly gets back to normal and looks forward to the more profane celebrations of the April Feria…