Here in southeast Spain Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, is a time of penance, prayer and processions. On Thursday we took the bus into Almeria to watch one of the processions, and it was memorable.
These Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions have a history dating back to the 16th Century and the Spanish Counter Reformation. Local parishes, civil groups and other organisations have their own confradias, fraternities responsible for the care and maintenance of elaborate statues of Jesus and Mary, and preparing throughout the year for these Semana Santa processions. There are 23 of these confradias in Almeria, and throughout the week there are two, three or more processions each evening and night.
The Nazarenos, or penitants, are hidden behind masks and pointed hats, wearing long robes and capes, rosary beads, and some carrying crosiers, bibles and other Catholic symbols. Although to our eyes the costumes are disturbingly similar to Ku Klux Klan, their symbolism to these Spanish penitents is entirely unrelated. The tall pointed hats carry the same symbolism as church spires and cypress trees in cemetaries – carrying the penitents sins up to heaven. And the masks perform the same function as the enclosed darkness of the confessional, hiding the identity of the penitants and allowing for private penance behind the mask. At the procession we attended, the Nazarenos all wore black and white, but other groups in different processions wear purples, reds and other bright colours.
The Nazarenos walked slowly down the street in formation, followed by altar boys swinging thuribles of incense, that familiar smell of Catholic ritual filling the air. Behind the altar boys came the large statue of the suffering Christ, carried on the shoulders of more penitents, hidden underneath heavy velvet cloth. And behind them came the brass band, playing piercing and mournful music.
In the old days, only men were allowed to process in penance, but these days women participate too, and some of the leaders of the groups were clearly women, judging by their footwear and finger rings! Some penitants were accompanied by their children and I was amused at one point to see a mother and father, each with a child, stop, pull out baby drinking bottles from their swaths of robes, and give their children quick drinks!
After the Christ statue came the women, dressed in widows garb, with high mantillas on their heads, rosery beads wrapped around their hands. They in turn were followed by more altar boys swinging thuribles and then a statue of the suffering Virgin Mary, carried on the shoulders of more penitants draped in velvet, and another brass band.
Like the little boy with his dad, in an earlier photo, I was also particularly taken by a woman in her late 60s. Despite the penance and the seriousness of the occasion, she was wearing her sexiest shoes and was having a bit of lighthearted a giggle with the pointy-hatted man to her left!
On Good Friday, the girls and I attended another procession in Aguadulce. This was much more low key, without the elaborate dress, and was more akin to Good Friday services that I am used to in Ireland. After a prayer service in the church in Aguadulce, a large crucifix with the crucified Christ was carried from the church by about ten men. They were followed by fifty or so penitants, mostly old women and men, who proceeded around the streets of Aguadulce, praying, singing hymns and stopping every couple of hundred yards to do the Stations of the Cross and say the rosary.
We’ve returned to our pagan ways aboard Carina this morning. The Easter bunny came in the night and hid chocolate eggs and rabbits around Carina‘s deck and on the pontoon. The girls have been kept busy searching for the chocolate before it gets melted by the hot spring sun!!
Happy Easter everyone!