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Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it

We went into Pinoso on Wednesday to see the Procession of the imprisoned Jesus. He was escorted by the Roman Century and two of the be-hooded brotherhoods plus a couple of groups dedicated to different incarnations of the Virgin. To be honest I have no idea what was actually happening despite having seen this, or processions very similar to it, tens of times in our time here. In fact a British couple newly arrived in Pinoso were asking Maggie which of the long Good Friday programme in Pinoso were the ones not to miss and, when it came down to it, we were guessing.

One of the events IN CAPITALS for the Good Friday programme for Pinoso is the encounter between The Verónica and Our Father Jesús. Google tells me that The Verónica, according to the Christian tradition, was the woman who, during the Viacrucis, handed Jesus a cloth to wipe away his sweat and blood, a cloth on which his face was miraculously imprinted. Then I had to Google Viacrucis. It seems to be Jesus's journey from Palm Sunday to the tomb via crucifixion, which Wikipedia tells me is interpreted as the Stations of the Cross in English. I'm sure that the Spanish interpretation is Jesus dragging his cross up to Golgotha.

The point is that I have been a spectator at several of the events that mark Holy Week all over Spain but I don't really know what is happening or why. People often think of Spain as being a very religious, read Catholic, country. I don't think that's really true any longer. I think it is true to say that there are still a lot of fervent Catholics in Spain but they tend to be from the older generation. What there is a lot of in Spain is tradition that is based on Catholic iconography and dogma. So carved wooden saints or Virgin Mary statues turn up time and time again in various sorts of ceremonies. Priests bless animals and police cars, Baptisms and communions are a societal rite of passage and an excuse for a meal. Spain is a country with lots and lots of traditions and because, in the past, those traditions were linked to the Catholic Church the tradition still looks like and is loaded with Catholic symbolism and ritual.

Last night as the wooden figures were paraded around Pinoso amidst an enormous crowd everything suddenly went quiet, The procession halted and somebody, somewhere in the distance, sang a saeta, the traditional style of song only sung at Eastertide. I have no idea how all those people knew to stop, maybe it was preplanned, maybe the people who control each group are wired into some sophisticated communication system but everybody stopped. Even the gum chewing lads with the funny haircuts and the noisy children sitting in the gutter knew to shut up while the song lasted. When it was done, the crowd applauded loud and long. Very Christian and absolutely nothing to do with religion for the majority of the crowd.

Easter has other traditions. aside from the processions. A mass exodus from the big cities to the coast and lots of road deaths is one but there are also traditions around food just as there are in the UK. Maggie always bemoans the shortage of hot cross buns and chocolate eggs in Spain. Traditional Easter food includes torrijas, which takes all sorts of shapes and flavours, but are basically fried, sweetened, egg soaked pieces of bread. The mona de pascua is typical of this area - it's a sort of sweetened bready cake with a hard boiled egg in the middle. And, truth be told, chocolate Easter eggs are pretty common nowadays alongside gold foil wrapped Lindt Easter bunnies.

We were in Santa Pola for our first Easter in Spain. For us Easter was the British long weekend starting on Good Friday and ending on Easter Monday which is nothing like the timetable in Spain. One night I was getting really angry. There were obviously a couple of lads on their way to Boys Brigade band practice who were pounding their drums outside our window. I couldn't stand it any more. I went on to the balcony to tell them to shut up and found myself staring at a religious float being wheeled through the streets accompanied by people who looked like Klu Klux Klan members beating muffled drums. For those of you who know just as much about Holy Week, Semana Santa, now as I did then here is my brief guide to the Spanish Easter. A disclaimer. There are as many Easter traditions as there are towns in Spain so this is a very generalised view.

The first event is usually Palm Sunday, Domingo de Ramos, which can vary from huge processions, as in Elche, with lots of participants carrying palm fronds some of them woven into the most intricate designs imaginable, through to tiny processions with a small band of people waving any old greenery that they have found somewhere alongside the way following the local priest to or from the church up in Salamanca.

From Holy Monday on there are processions after processions in nearly every town or city of Spain through to the joyous celebrations of Easter Sunday. Semana Santa is everywhere but it's especially enormous down in Andalucia, especially in Seville and Malaga. All week long there are processions of penitents dressed in long cloaks with tall pointed hat and hood combinations with eye slits. They are usually called capuchas though there are several local names. The penitents are usually accompanied by eerie music based on drum beats and shrill horn blasts. The penitentes encapuchados (hooded penitents) or Nazarenos (Nazarenes) belong to a cofradía or hermandad - a brotherhood - usually associated with a particular church or cult. Each brotherhood has a distinctive design to the cloak and hood. As well as the brotherhoods there are often other groups with affiliations to a particular cult and or effigy. Women wearing the long lacy mantillas supported by a peineta, usually all in black, Roman soldiers with clinking armour and a whole range of other styles of uniform are common.

The penitents and sometimes the other groupings, accompany a paso or trono (tableau or float) nearly all of which have some reference to the Easter passion: Jesus on the cross, The Last Supper, some part of the Easter story featuring one of the Apostles - for instance Peter and a cockerel. The pasos vary in size, some are on wheels but the most impressive ones weigh a couple of tons and are carried by men (and nowadays women) four or five abreast. The crowd applaud the management of some of the bigger floats, often ablaze with chandelier style lanterns, and even for non believers the intricate design, the effort that goes into their preparation and the sheer size of the tableau is something to behold.

The slow and sometimes, literally, painful progress of the tronos is regulated by el capataz, the boss, who has to look after the team of bearers and make sure that the tableau avoid the overhanging balconies, negotiate the right angle turns and arrive safely to their destination. Along the way as the tronos stop, that's the time that the balcony based singers take their opportunity to sing the saetas. Usually the different brotherhoods take the lead in one of the processions sometime during Holy Week but they often process several times. The processions can be at any time of day and towards the end of the week there are more daytime events. The majority though start in the early evening, around eight or nine, and often go on well into the next morning. Usually all the brotherhoods of a city or town are on the move on Maundy Thursday as the day becomes Good Friday. Silent processions with towns blacked out for a short while around midnight are common. Seeing bands of hooded figures carrying carved statues on their back in the pitch dark is something to stir the spirit. Very eerie.

Some processions are much more serious than others, more religious. For instance in Pinoso and around the corner in Murcia the penitents often carry bags of sweets that they dole out to the outstretched hands of children. On the other hand, while I was getting a coffee in a bar on Wednesday, everyone stopped to watch the television as engineer soldiers (los gastadores) of the Spanish Foreign Legion changed guard on the Cristo de Mena, a carved wooden statue famous in Malaga. Imagine the precision of the changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace, by soldiers with spades across their back, to stand silent and motionless to guard a wooden religious statue. Bizarre. When we lived in Cartagena the precision of the penitents  as they marched was remarkable. We have seen people denied a place in the procession because their gloves were not the correct shade of white or because the would be penitent had painted toenails poking from their sandals. On the other hand one of the tronos in Cartagena is a serving navy sailor, Saint Peter the fisherman. He is granted shore leave but ends up confined to barracks for another year when he returns drunk after meeting with his apostle colleagues in the wee small hours of the morning. The drunken return of Saint Peter involves the float bearers dipping and lifting the heavy tableau in unison. In Hellín people wander around the streets drumming with no particular organisation or purpose that I could see and drumming is big all over Castilla la Mancha. Watching the TV news the breadth of costumes and traditions is breathtaking.

Spain is just about as Spanish as Spain gets at Eastertide

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