Semana Santa

My brother Will has been living in Zaragoza, Spain for the past seven months.  Zaragoza is a middling-sized city, but it is bigger than Boston.  Seven hundred thousand people live there, and in 2010 it hosted a World Expo.

I arrived in Zaragoza the evening of March 24th.  It was Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week or Semana Santa.  Holy Week is that last week of Lent, and it is supposed to coincide with Passover but I don’t think it always does because religions can’t agree on anything.  At any rate, Jesus came to Jerusalem from Bethany on Palm Sunday, which is so named because there were excited children waving palms in front of him as he rode a donkey down the road.

This began what I can only assume was the worst week in Jesus’s life, because by Friday he had been condemned to death and nailed onto a cross.  Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santos) is the night of the Last Supper, after which Seder Judas betrayed Jesus and so did Peter and the other disciples proved generally unhelpful, resulting in the crucifixion that I have seen painted and sculpted and carved five hundred times, if not more, in the past week.

Catholic churches are big into the crucifixion.  For instance, this was the admission ticket to a church in Zaragoza.

Thank you for your visit!

Thank you for your visit!

In Spain, the faithful celebrate Semana Santa with processions on each of the holy days: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.  On Palm Sunday the processions are silent.  This changes as the week progresses.

When you march in a Semana Santa procession you wear a long shapeless robe and an opaque veil with round eye-holes.  Many people wear a tall, pointed hat the same color as the veil.  From the back, you look like a wizard in this outfit.  Unfortunately the Ku Klux Klan appropriated this costume to wear during their general hideous goings-on, so from the front, at least to an American, you look pretty sinister.

But I suspect the veils are unsettling no matter where you’re from.  The costume gives the entire procession an insular, inhuman feeling.  Whereas the parades I’m used to are performed for the benefit of an audience, these processions feel divorced from place and time, and from the people who watch them.

On Palm Sunday I saw my first procession.

Everyone was dressed in black.  Gold chains hung beneath the veils.  About fifty people, halfway through the procession, carried a float of Christ on their shoulders.  The procession moved painstakingly slowly so that these people could drop the float to waist-level every so often.  A crowd of onlookers followed the procession on the sidewalk.

On Thursday, while Will and I were waiting for a bus that never did come, we heard drums slowly approaching.  They beat out a ceaseless rhythm, simple and severe.  Eventually, a line of walkers emerged from a narrow cobbled alley right by the bus stop.  Dressed in purple from head to toe, they moved slowly and silently, without faces, across an intersection and into another narrow little street.  They walked two abreast, and they issued endlessly from the mouth of the alley before vanishing into the next alley.

Finally, the drummers came into view.  They, too, wore pointed purple hats and purple veils; with red drumsticks in their gloved hands, they beat snare and bass drums.  Then they, too, passed into the second alley, the drums echoing all through the streets.

This procession, along with all the others I saw that day, featured two floats, one of the Virgin Mary and one of Jesus Christ bearing his own cross (or tied to a column).  Some of the floats were pulled on wheels so the processions could move faster; others were carried, and each time the bearers took a break a priest would come and bless them.  Each church had its own procession with different colored floats and costumes.

No matter where I was in the city, I could hear drums.  In the afternoon I sat across the river from Pilar, the central plaza in Zaragoza whose focal point is a massive church bursting with domes and turrets.  I read my book on a bench that had been doused with swastikas but now sat innocent and mellow in the sun; through the fresh budding branches of a bright tree I could see all the church’s domes, tiled in concentric diamonds of white, green, blue, and yellow.  The river had spilled over its banks and now it raced past thin tree trunks, bringing with it the heady deep smell of sediment and growth.  Pilar clanged out the quarter hours with its ancient bells and drumbeats rolled across the water.  Their steady, tireless rhythm was faceless and persistent as the people who beat them.

All day long the drums sounded through the city.  All day long the processions filed through the streets, dragging Christ and his cross behind them.

The next day, Good Friday, Will and I woke up in Madrid.  The processions here were longer and louder, and we got up closer to the floats than we had in Zaragoza.  The people bearing these floats looked like they had just pulled a 5k and been told as a surprise that they now had to carry their boats another five kilometers.  Their faces (bare) were screwed up and silent.  The veiled walkers around them did not turn their heads to see the float.  That day, in addition to drums, there were brass and wind ensembles playing dirges.  Good Friday commemorates the beginning of the mystery of faith: Christ has died.  These processions are burial marches.

Easter’s processions are bright and loud.  There are no hoods or veils.  The music is victorious.  Jesus no longer bears his cross.  He has emerged from his tomb in the second part of the mystery of faith: Christ is risen.

tl;dr: it’s not a KKK rally, it’s Holy Week!  Also, I have seen a lot of dead Jesuses this week.

(photos forthcoming.)

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