Visitors to parts of Andalucía during the past week (the week leading up to Easter Sunday) must be wondering what on earth is going on; road closures, strange costumed parades, floats depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, marching bands, lots of people crying, even more people lining the streets – welcome to the annual spectacle that is Semana Santa or Holy week.
The Semana Santa processions may look sinister but they are quite far removed from practices you might normally associate with such clothing. In the larger towns and cities, these processions can be quite lavish including at times some very intricate animatronics and a vast amount of wealth on display. In smaller towns, such processions are still carried out with the same degree of pathos but the feeling is that they are much more passionate and spiritual affairs.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Semana Santa, the tradition of these processions dates back to medieval times and features sculptures depicting events that supposedly happened between Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and burial and / or images of the Virgin Mary showing grief for her son. These sculptures are called pasos and are often ornately decorated and can weigh anything up to five tonnes. The pasos are traditionally carried through the streets on the necks of people called costaleros, which literally translated, means “sack men”. The name costaleros comes from the sack-like cloth called a costal that they wear over their necks to soften the heavy burden. In smaller towns, the floats that the pasos are mounted upon can include wheels for ease of transport and because possibly there are fewer costaleros. The pasos are accompanied by hermandades and cofradías, religious brotherhoods that are common to a specific area of the city or town dressed in long robes, often with pointed hats and sometimes followed by women in black carrying candles. The processions start and end at whatever church is specific to the brotherhood and proceedings often begin with a special church service.
This year I was interested to carry out a side-by-side comparison of processions in a large city and a smaller town. I chose the city of Almería and the pueblo of Níjar, in the province of Almería and about an hour’s drive from the city.
In Almería, I actually saw two evening processions on what is known as Martes Santo or Holy Tuesday. Although both processions in Almería were deeply moving, my feeling was that they were as much about “the show” as anything else although obviously there is the religious significance and cultural aspects to respect.
By contrast in Níjar on Jueves Santo (Holy or Maundy Thursday) the procession included two pasos and one brotherhood to each of them. They paraded around the streets in a more modest manner and the crowds were not merely spectators, but many were actually taking part.
Whilst the processions in Almería and Níjar were both visually rich, sombre and carried out with equal amounts of passion, it is obvious that more money was spent in the bigger city. Personally though, I thought that the procession in the smaller town was more moving because of its comparative austerity and because of the participation of the majority of the spectators.
But as with most things in life, there’s only one way to find out what it’s really like and that is to experience it yourself!