I’ve come to appreciate that spring in Andalusia, Spain is not only a time for cyprus, almond, and olive trees to bloom but it also marks the season of festivals. A time to get back out in warmer weather and reunite with your fellow neighbors. And Holy Week (Semana Santa) in Granada seems to kick it all off.
We know the Easter season is upon us when my allergies hit full gear and you can start seeing the “practice” processions in early March. The sounds of bands, most prominently bugles and drums, pierce the air and visions of the hulking, metal and wood frames that support the floats emerge from their yearly slumber from deep within the bowels of churches where they’re most likely stored.
You see, several church and neighborhood combinations seem to sponsor a Holy Week procession through a particular route in town. Each one is a grand event, occurring on a specific day of the week leading up to Easter Sunday.
In Granada, you can count on at least one major procession a day. Some march during the daylight hours while others, literally, throughout the night.
Each procession, or paso, is preceded by incense bearers and made up of a couple of marching bands (one at the front and another closing from behind). The solemn music sets the mood and dictates the pace at which the floats are carried.
Each parade usually consists of two floats. The first depicts a scene leading up to or related to Christ’s crucifixion. The second is always a mourning Mary. These are works of art, many are centuries old, hand painted and presumably made of wood.
The floats are carried by specially trained costaleros, mostly men, that wear plain clothing with a white band that is forcibly stretched and wrapped around their torso. Probably in place to reinforce their bodies not unlike the belts weight lifters don prior to overexerting themselves.
They also wear some special head cloth though I’m not sure if this is ceremonial or serves some other more useful purpose like collecting sweat. I believe they bear the weight with their shoulders and not with their heads!
I’d guess between 50-100 men are beneath each depending on size, shuffling their feet in unison, traversing an inch with each step. The float precariously sways in time as they listen to their navigator to descend ramps, negotiate cobbled streets, and pivot around tight corners. They do take breaks every 30 meters or so and even have a second team of costaleros in waiting that swap out every so often.
The crowd cheers out of relief every time the bus-sized floats are successfully placed on the ground and raised again. Even with this element of danger, you can always find a crowd of humanity just along side and nearly underneath jockeying for space to get a closer look and a quick touch of the intricate carvings.
The processions aren’t complete without the colorful hooded penitents. I know the outfits always make Americans do a doubletake when first seen, but these have obviously been around a lot longer than the racist white versions found in our history.
The robes and hoods allow these people to repent their sins in public and remain anonymous. A few can even be seen barefoot. Even fewer have chains around their ankles and carry heavy wooden crosses of their own. The colors are dependent to which church or brotherhood they belong.
I’m not sure if it is like this in other Spanish cities, but each procession in Granada certainly has its own flair.
There is the silent midnight march down by the river where only a steady drum solo and chains dragging on the pavement by the penitents can be heard.
There is also the more lively Wednesday night Cristo de los Gitanos (Christ of the Gypsies) procession that starts in town, escalates the Albayzín and continues uphill for the 10-12 hour trip up to the Abbey of Sacromonte. This is definitely more of a party atmosphere as the parade is escorted by singing gypsies, flamenco music, and bonfires throughout the night. The float usually doesn’t reach the Abbey until the sun is rising the next day.
One of the most accessible pasos for us is the one right in our neighborhood. It starts at a local church that is home to La Aurora, and chants are heard from each side of the street as she descends.
“Auroooooora!” initiates one side.
“Guapa, guapa, GUAPA!” recalls the other. (Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!)
Technically, this is one of the most fun to see as they pivot around impossibly narrow streets on their descent down. The floats, especially those of Mary, are heavily adorned with elaborate candlesticks that are all aflame and sway with each step.
The combination of the somber music, lit candles, faceless participants or the mourning ladies dressed in black and the images of a crucified Jesus slowly passing by really set an emotional scene that tended to wash over me when I permit it.
Even for this non-Catholic family, we all agreed there were some really beautiful moments.
On the lighter side, I’m still not sure how there aren’t more fire related accidents. Many of the processioners are children in these elaborate baggy costumes complete with huge loopy sleeves and gloves. Add in the fact that some are hooded, standing in lines, and can barely see but also enamoured with the fire coming from the candles, makes for some close calls.