When we talk about Easter in Spain, we immediately think about the sound of drums and trumpets together with a figure of the Passion of Christ, surrounded by candles and adorned with thousands of flowers. But not everything in these holy days is processions, floats and “costaleros” (those carrying the floats). There is much more tradition, culture and history behind these festivals.
Let’s start at the beginning…
The origin of the processions as we know them today in our country, is the result of many years of evolution. Historical data tells us that as early as the Middle Ages there were processions, but without doubt the key date would appear to be 1521 when Farique Enríquez de Ribera, Marqués of Tarifa, returns to Spain from the Holy Land and organizes a “Stations of the Cross”, from his palace in Seville to a pavilion, carrying a cross the same distance as there is in Jerusalem from the house of Pontius Pilate to Golgotha.
A short time afterwards, the Catholic church saw in these marches a new way of demonstrating the truth of the people’s faith and voilá! This gives rise to the Christian tradition of processions.
The processions step by step
Nowadays, the procession is a cortege which accompanies the sculptures of scenes or characters from the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. These floats are known as “pasos” o “tronos” and are carried by the members of their respective fraternities or brotherhoods.
What differences are there between them? Well, at present there are none. The fraternities were created to group together people from the same profession or social class. So that, the first fraternities were “Fraternity of Fishermen”, “Fraternity of merchants” …
The brotherhoods, however, were created with the aim of integrating individuals from different professions or races. Although over time it was common that a fraternity, became a brotherhood, when people with different social characteristics were allowed to enter.
Today, things have changed. There is no difference either social or legal between a fraternity and a brotherhood, and the name simply reflects the designation it was given when founded and above all the origin or historical remembrance that one wishes it to have.
Having clarified this aspect, let’s go back to the processions…
El “trono”, as the principal figure, is placed in the centre of the procession and is preceded by hooded figures wearing their tall pointed hoods which foreign visitors always find somewhat shocking because they bring to mind a certain xenophobic, extreme right wing group, although obviously they have nothing to do with them. They are the so-called Nazarenes, the faithful who cover their faces to ask for pardon and sometimes we see them doing penance using scourges or walking barefoot.
The Easter processions are a spectacle all over Spain, but it’s curious the differences that we find between one region and another. For example, the Castilian celebrations are an icon of solemnity and silence, only broken by the sound of the trumpets and the drums accompanying the march of the figures. Whereas, the Andalusian processions exude light and colour, as do those in the Levante region.
In all the Spanish regions these festivals have their own identity and character, many of which have been honoured with being named a destination of International Tourist Interest. The first to receive this recognition were Zamora, Málaga, Cuenca and of course that of the Andalusian capital Seville, whose processions are known throughout the world.
However, the only candidate to be recognised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity today is Valladolid, perhaps because its statues are amongst those which have the highest artistic value in the World, or because it is said to be that which represents most faithfully and with most detail the Passion of Christ. Whatever the reason, it’s well worth a trip to go and see for yourself.
Regardless of faith, believers or not, these celebrations are experiences that are absolutely moving and unique. It’s worth going out into the street to mix with the people who live it with a wonderful intensity, to enjoy the beauty of the images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin. Some of these sculptures were the work of well-known Spanish sculptors like Berruguete or Juan de Juni. They are magnificent pieces, many of them more than five centuries old which are taken outside once a year to be admired by thousands of people who honour their passing in silence or with the singing of a “saeta”.
It’s a combination of feelings which leave indifferent nobody who is lucky enough to experience a Spanish Easter in any of its versions and in whatever region.
Excitement is guaranteed and once you’ve tried it, you’ll repeat.
And talking about trying and repeating…
I don’t want to leave out the gastronomic aspect of Easter for in Spain, as in many countries, above all those with a Christian tradition, the culinary customs are very distinctive during these dates.
Principally we will find dishes based on fish, vegetables, pulses and a lot of sweet dishes.
As dictated by tradition, meat is avoided during these days, this abstinence is counteracted with delicious and filling soups and stews, such as garlic soups or the “potaje de vigilia”, a traditional stew with chickpeas and salt cod, and if one’s diet and doctor so permit, any of the typical sweet dishes is a delicious way to end the meal. And just like everything else in these dates, each region has their own. In the South of Spain they have the “pestiños”, in Catalonia the “Monas de Pascua”… and at a national level, our famous “torrijas”, a Spanish and much improved version of our neighbours’ French Toast, “torrijas” are the reason that “operation bikini” gets forgotten for a few days…
To sum up, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, the streets of Spain are filled with life, light and colour. They are days which without a doubt are worth a visit to our country to soak up the traditions and between one procession and another to treat oneself to a “torrija”.