Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Semana Santa en El Puerto de Santa Maria

The most shocking are the hoods.  For us Americans, or me anyway, the sight of hundreds of hooded figures, the pointy caps turning even children into giants, the eyeholes black and glinting from unknown eyes, sets off chills when first seen.  Which is a shame that this penitent gesture was co-opted by the KKK.

And candles even during the day
Eyes glint in the night

The capirote, as it is known, started off as a tool of the Inquisition, being used both for penitents as well as for those accused of misdeeds against the church as they were wheeled around town, in the tall pointy caps meant to demonstrate penitence.  This dunce-cap cousin is now worn voluntarily by many in the processions of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, that take place every year the week before Easter.  While processions take place in Spain’s former colonies, Spain’s are the most impressive.

Marching down Calle La Palma, our street

The week leading up to Easter, marking the end of Lent, celebrates the last days of Jesus and the start of Christianity:  the passion, the death, and the resurrection.  On the Sunday before Easter, the procession marks Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday’s processions showcase Jesus followed by a radiant but weeping Mary; Thursday celebrates the Last Supper and the start of the Eucharist.  Good Friday celebrates the passion and crucifixion of Christ, while Sunday is marked by Jesus’ resurrection. 

A paso from above, Jesus after resurrection

Each procession follows a route through town, sometimes the same, sometimes different.  Penitents carry candles and stop periodically along the way to wait for the huge images carried by (according to Tia when she visited the church with her class to look underneath) at least 39 or 40 strong men, who change out at intervals to rest (these pasos, or wooden painted images on floats, can weigh several tons, although I’m not sure that ours in Puerto do).  And so goes the procession:  Church leaders and leaders of the cofraida or brotherhood in charge of that procession, followed by the penitents, in turns walking and waiting with their candles gleaming.  Then the massive paso moving through the streets, tiny steps by large men to turn the tight corners of Puerto’s narrow streets, and then a rest. 

Penitentes come in all colors and sizes

Townsfolk next to the Castillo San Marcos

The pasos originally were carried by dock workers, strong young men used to heavy loads.  They pad their necks with funny arab-looking headdresses plastered to their foreheads, rolled around their necks, and hanging down their backs.  They congregate in laughing groups, waiting for the paso in order to change out with the other strong, young guys currently bent under its weight.  An elaborate ritual of starting and stopping, complete with a huge knocker on the wooden frame of the paso, announces to the hidden cargaores that it’s time to get going again. 

Cargaores waiting for the paso to come by

The streets fill quickly with onlookers of all sorts, families with children in strollers and at their sides, teenagers, grandparents, and everything in between, many with cameras in hand to videotape the spectacle.  During the rest periods children run out with balls to catch the dripping wax of the candles; in time, these balls of wax can become enormous, depending on how diligent the child is.  Tia came up with an excellent explanation of this tradition:  “You know, Mom, I think the reason they let the kids catch the wax is so that they aren’t so afraid of the penitentes!  I think she may have a point (pun intended).

Safely catching wax next to the cargaores

See, Mom, they're not so scary!

In fact, many children are not just spectators but active participants in the processions.  Tia and Sasha, despite not being Catholic, were invited to take part, but decided to just find out what it is all about this year.  Tia, after watching avidly, declared her intent to salir en los procesiones de Semana Santa next year!

You don't even have to wear the mask...

AND you get to hand out (and eat) treats!

The crowd grows several deep along the procession route, materializing from nowhere in mere minutes before the procession starts, lining the streets.  Todd called them a flash mob, but it’s nowhere near as menacing, and absolutely enchanting:  The townspeople come out to celebrate their traditions, their beautiful historical images from the church, their religion, and the coming of Spring.  For the first time I could see that the wooden and plaster statues of Jesus and Maria we had seen in the church, so richly decorated and dressed, had a life of their own, parading through the streets in a centuries-old tradition dating back to the 14th century. 

Good Friday

A beautiful, sorrowful Maria

Accompanying the pasos are brass bands made up of local townspeople.  Their skill demonstrates the importance that Spain, as well as most of Europe, still places on learning to play an instrument (Tia and Sasha both have a music class once a week, with optional classes available for free after school).  There are different bands each day, and with each city in Spain celebrating its own Semana Santa, it was truly astounding to witness the breadth of musical ability here. 

There's a LOT of people who know how to play music here!
Early in the week, the music is in minor keys, as sad as the tear-streaked face of the Virgen Mary passing by.  But on Sunday the music takes a dramatic and major turn, celebrating the resurrection of Christ.

Brass was the band of choice in Puerto

A lost penitente

Bands as well as the way the pasos are carried vary from town to town.  We were in Málaga for the day to visit my friend Tonia, and stayed overnight in San Pedro de Alcántara.  A small town on the Costa del Sol (the Mediterranean side of the southern coast of Spain), San Pedro only had a handful of musicians and one gorgeous paso that evening, but the variations made it worth our while.  Instead of a brass band, San Pedro had woodwinds, a haunting melody preceding a weeping Maria.  Carried by both men and women on their shoulders, hands braced on the person in front of them, the procession was just as beautiful and solemn as others we’d seen. 

Maria de San Pedro de Alcántara

One of the most wonderful parts of this week-long celebration was that the official route ran directly in front of our house, passing down Calle La Palma, rounding the corner to the tiny street Conde de Osborne, onto which our front door and balconies open up, and up past the Castillo San Marcos on the way to the 16th century church, La Iglesia Prioral.

There's our house, street, and balcony!

Although it’s impossible to do Semana Santa justice via video,  I’ve tried to capture the sound, the beauty and the feel of this week.  More than a mere religious holiday,  and in Andalucía in particular very welcoming to all, Catholic or not, it captures the spirit of Spain, its soul, its joy, and its enchantment.  ¡Viva la Semana Santa!

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