Monday, March 17, 2008

He's Here ...

Elvis may have left the building but Jesus has just arrived. In fact, he arrived in La Línea last night at 7:45. Exactly. How do I know? Because I watched his arrival on TV last night.

Yes, yesterday was Domingo de Ramos, Palm Sunday - the official kick-off for Semana Santa (Holy week) - when the country (but especially Andalucía) revels in a weeklong celebration of wailing and flailing. And as of today, Jesus has four more days to go ...

Quite simply, Semana Santa is a really big deal in Spain, bigger-than-Christmas big (but especially Andalucía) and its traditions are thought to date back to the Counter Reformation, if not earlier. For some reason - perhaps it's the weather - people in the south don't just commemorate the passion of Christ but empathize with it - actually feel it. This is a week of weeping and gnashing of teeth (in Old Testament proportions). I would not be remiss to say that it's a little scary (in Spanish Inquisition proportions).

Since yesterday was Palm Sunday, Jesus made his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem - or in this case La Línea - on a donkey. Who doesn't love a donkey? And doesn't Jesus look - well - if not happy then at least not in excruciating and tortuous pain? But wait! - our Jesus-entering-the city is being followed by Jesus-being-whipped. Just so we don't forget why we're all here.

The week is marked by a series of pasos, or long processions, during which the town's various religious fraternities and brotherhoods bear ornate and oft times gaudy tronos or "floats"- some of which date back to the 16th century - from its local church, through the neighbourhood, and back to its originating church. These massive wooden platforms (some weigh as much as 5,000 kilos) are topped with statues of the saints (the local virgin is very popular) or dioramas of biblical scenes and can be seen swaying like heavily laden camels through the barrios on their way to neighbourhood churches or cathedrals. As many as three thousand members of any given brotherhood may participate in the processions of Semana Santa and, depending on their seniority, may carry candles, staves or banners.

Hierarchy (and pageantry) isn't dead in the Catholic Church.

Often a tinny brass band marches and plays on, succeeding in cheapening and enhancing the mood at the same time.

Beneath each float are hidden 24-48 costaleros or "sack men" (although up to 250 for the more massive tronos) and it goes without saying that to break your back during Semana Santa is a profound honour. The costaleros are protected from their ponderous loads by the thinnest of neck pads which probably lose all efficacy in the first 2 minutes of marching. Long-time bearers often have a permanent "float bump" - a raised bunion-like swelling on their shoulders - not unlike a prayer bump on a devout Muslim's forehead. This will undoubtedly ease their entry into heaven.

If the wailing and the flailing isn't lugubrious and unsettling enough, the marchers - penitentes - who march in front of the pasos and make the "Stations of Penance" are often barefoot and wear costumes a little too reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. These outfits - the colours and emblems of which are determined by the brotherhood they represent - are intended to depict the Nazareños (or people from Nazareth, although the Nazarenes in the Child's Illustrated Bible in my dentist's office never looked like this). Probably the most disturbing feature of this already disturbing costume is the capirote, the tall conical hood which conceals the face; its intention is to evoke the conduit of the penitente to the heaven.

It invokes fear in me. Of course, the slow rhythmic beating of the drums, the swaying paces of the float bearers, and the continual lamenting of the flamenco-like saeta, ("arrow") by choirs and onlookers help. In a word, it's all very mediaeval. The only thing missing is a trussed up witch and a few bundles of twigs.

In some places and on specific days, a town will host two pasos a day. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday will mark the zenith of the week's most funereal aspects. Señor Gato Gringo and I must decide which "festivities" to attend. Seville's - hands down Spain's most elaborate - with its 58-some pasos, is out of the question. So popular is it that hotels are sold out months and months (sometimes as much as a year) in advance and private individuals have already rented out space on their balconies from which to view the pasos. Malaga is the next best thing to Seville but requires an almost 3-hour bus trip and, I know that Christ is said to have died on a cross and all that, but a 3-hour bus trip? Seriously! And coming in at number 3 are the celebrations in Cádiz and although the bus ride is shorter, requires a transfer. I mean, please ...

So it will probably be La Línea or nearby San Roque. San Roque - although still requiring a bus trip (10 minutes) - has the advantage of being a more typical white-pueblo-type Andalucian town. Never underestimate ambience. No disrespect to La Línea but watching the float of the "Virgin of the Joy" pause and then pass by the Okay! Pastelleria on her way to the church was a little incongruent. Unless it's a Station of the Cross that I just don't remember: The Virgin Stops For a Coffee and a Croissant.

: Señor G.G. has just informed me that Antonio Banderas participated in the Semana Santa festivities in his hometown of Málaga on Sunday where, complete with pointy hat, he served at the mayordomo of the Virgen de Lágrimas y Favores (the Virgin of Tears and Favours). I must confess that Málaga is looking pretty good right now.


Cath said...

D'oh! I missed our annual pre-Palm Sunday greeting.
Easter's ruined.

La Gatita Gringa said...

I thought of you on Sunday as Senor GG and I were sunbathing on our rooftop terrace in the 28 degree sunshine. I *did* wish you a Happy Passion Palm Sunday.

Swillett said...

Hello. My name is Sarah. I got your blog info from my Mom, who got it from Cathy. I'll be heading to Spain at the end of August, to teach at an international school in Vigo.
I have to tell you, I miss Semana Santa. I was in Honduras last year, where many of the celebrations were similar to those that you describe in Spain. Do they make sawdust carpets in Spain? They were the highlight of Easter for me in Honduras last year.

La Gatita Gringa said...

Hi Sarah - sawdust carpets?? Do tell!

Anonymous said...

I believe the Klan has moved from Oklahoma to Spain. It is too wierd.