Tag Archives: semana santa

Hey Macarena! La Madrugá

Sevillian men don’t wolf whistle – they shout ‘guapa’ (pronounced gwapa) instead, meaning ‘good looking’.  It’s regularly bandied about as a greeting between women friends, as well as a sign of appreciation by a man for a woman, and offends no one here.  I was somewhat taken aback however, to hear it being shouted at the Virgin Mary.  Or, to be more specific, the Virgin Esperanza Macarena, reputedly the most beautiful of all of the effigies of the Madonna paraded through the streets of Seville during Holy Week.  Joselito, a famous Sevillian bullfighter in the early 20thcentury, was so enamoured of her, that he bought 5 emerald brooches to adorn her robes, which she still wears today.  When Joselito was gored to death in the bullring in 1920 aged just 25, they dressed the Virgin in black mourning dress for a month.

Crowds and Nazarenos wait for Macarena to come out of the church

This starts to give you an idea of how the Spanish mix their religion with folklore and sentimentality.  Make no mistake, however, their devotion, whether to religion or tradition, is deep and serious, even if some of its manifestations seem strange or trivial to the uninitiated.  As the Virgin Esperanza Macarana passed among the crowds of thousands in the early hours of the morning on Good Friday, (known here as La Madrugá) held aloft on a float decorated with church silver, candles and flowers, no one spoke.  I’m serious, no one spoke! Normally, even a handful of Spaniards will be so noisy you can’t hear yourself think, but there was silent reverence from the enormous crowd as she passed.  Some wept, held hands, crossed themselves or kissed their partners, but all were rapt – from young men with Mohican hair styles to elderly men and women and their young grandchildren. Then, someone in the crowd shouts ‘Macareeena!’ and a nearby group responds loudly ‘Guapaaa!’ – repeated three times, in a bizarre, yet endearing adaptation of three cheers.

Here she comes - Guapa!

There are six processions during the night of La Madrugá.  Macarena starts first, at midnight, and doesn’t finish until 2.30pm.  That’s 14 hours walking through the streets wearing a hood that covers your face and long robes; some in bare feet, carrying crosses and candles – and it’s not just a handful of people, there were nearly 3000 in the Macarena procession.  Pity too the costaleros taking shifts lifting the punishingly heavy float, precariously balancing the precious Madonna, several hundredweight of silver, and lit candles several feet tall.

Jesus del Gran Poder is a 17th century statue, as is Macarena

Another much-loved statue paraded the same night is Jesús del Gran Poder – Jesus of the Great Power, from the church of the same name in Plaza San Lorenzo.  Macarena and Gran Poder have a bit of history.  In the first years of the 20thcentury the two brotherhoods had a row.  The processions are carefully timed because all have to take the same route on the approach to the Cathedral, which every procession passes through.  Macarena, a bit of a party girl, kept being late every year, so that the Jesús del Gran Poder procession had to wait an hour or two in one spot until she passed.  Tired of this, one year the Gran Poder just went ahead of Macarena and a great dispute followed.  In the end, the Macarena brotherhood conceded that Gran Poder could go first – but ever since, they send a band of men dressed as centurions on the day of the processions to the church of Jesús del Gran Poder, to confirm that they can go first.  Another astonishing sight in this week of astonishing sights.

Macarena's centurions returning from their mission at Gran Poder

The contrast of all this with our focus on Easter bunnies and egg hunts is stark.  I haven’t seen one chocolate egg here in Seville – though I’m told mini eggs can be found at Lidl if I get desperate.  When I told my parents that Maundy Thursday is a holiday here, because of its particular significance to Spanish people, they responded that it’s important in Britain too, and mentioned a service in the local church which involved washing of feet.  Yes, Maundy Thursday is quietly important to church-goers in the UK, but here in Seville it’s a city-wide ‘happening’, not entirely religious in nature.  The whole of Seville is out on the streets during the day dressed for the occasion.  Women of all ages wear the famous large mantilla hair combs, with black lace veils and fitted black mourning dresses, to remember the imminent death of Christ.

Maundy Thursday - beer and prawns beside Macarena church

Some of them will have been to church, for others it’s just a tradition nowadays, but all of them were crowded into tapas bars and restaurants, drinking and eating in large noisy groups of family and friends, enjoying the holiday.  As one Sevillian friend said to me “Here we can mourn Jesus’ death and celebrate his resurrection all at the same time”.

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Semana Santa Pasos

For the past week the fabulous Semana Santa Pasos have been on display in churches all over Seville, waiting for their outing during processions which start today and last for a week.   Sadly, after waiting months for much-needed rain, it has arrived at the worst time, and is forecast to continue.  So much work goes into preparations for Semana Santa for months in advance, but if there is any chance of rain the pasos and penitents stay indoors.

The Virgin's robe on a paso in Iglesia del Salvador

You can see why.  The pasos are covered in expensive fabrics and gold leaf and the effigies of Christ and the Virgin Mary are often valuable antiques in their own right.  I’m staggered by how huge and heavy the pasos look up close, and pity and admire the men (costaleros, see them practising uncovered in previous blog) who are hidden beneath, carrying them for hours through the streets.  The gold is just gold leaf on wood, or it would surely be impossible, but the silver is genuine.

Silver detail

Before being placed on the pasos, the Virgin Mary’s everyday clothes are changed for her spectacular Semana Santa robes.  This is done privately, and only women may change her dress.  In addition to all the silver polishing, it’s a special task for some to melt the ends of the huge candles to ensure they all reach the right height for the display and stay in their holders.  Gorgeous flower displays are often added too for the big day.

Paso in Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

In my neighbourhood of Alameda today, I saw the occasional Nazarene (penitient), walking through the rain to their church, hoping that their parade would still take place.

Barefoot Nazareno & Guardia Civil

I’m pleased to say that early this evening, the rain stopped and some of the postponed processions were able to take place – fingers crossed for the rest of the week.

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Preparing for Easter Madness

Children help prepare the paso at Hermandad de Los Estudiantes

Just one week to go and everywhere in Seville preparations are being made for the biggest religious festival of the year, Semana Santa.  Next Sunday – Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) – kicks off a week of highly theatrical parades through the streets, in a mixture of devotion and partying that only the Spaniards can pull off.

Seville is renowned for having the most spectacular Holy Week celebrations anywhere in the world.  Each church in Seville has its own brotherhood (hermandad) of laymen, who take part in processions wearing hooded robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, and carrying floats bearing life-size effigies of Christ on the cross and the Virgin Mary grieving.  Between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, 58 processions of up to 2800 penitents each, take place night and day, watched by crowds of close to a million people.

Costaleros in training for Semana Santa

The staggeringly heavy floats (or pasos), laden with church silver, statues, flowers and candles, are carried above the heads of dozens of heavily sweating men, the ‘costaleros’.  During Semana Santa, the costaleros will be hidden beneath the rich fabric that skirts the base of the float like an altar cloth, but during the weeks beforehand, they can be seen practising, unadorned in the streets.  The biggest guys get this job, and it is not a pretty sight!  Bellies hanging out of vests, trouser legs rolled up and protective fabric wrapped around their heads like turbans, they are packed closely together to maximise the lifting power.

Church silver coming out to be polished

For weeks, young people have been sitting in church doorways, polishing the huge and intricate silver pieces that form part of pasos, and last weekend the brotherhoods began to assemble the huge floats.  I was lucky enough to see this happening at the chapel of the ‘Estudiantes’ (students) brotherhood, allied to the University of Seville.  They make a lovely family occasion of it, inviting the youngest child in the families of brotherhood members along to help, followed by an afternoon tea.  It’s all pretty chaotic inside the small chapel.  As adults construct the float, which reaches almost to the roof, dozens of small children stand underneath in place of the costaleros, enclosed like battery hens in a cage.  The float is temporarily held up on supermarket trolley type wheels and is regularly moved to aid assembly in the small space, which results in all the little kids stumbling around underneath – quite alarming to watch for a health and safety conscious Brit..!

Children 'helping' in the construction...

I do admire the way Spanish people involve their children in everything though – all of the families’ youngest had been invited by personally-addressed letter to help with the preparations, and they clearly love being involved.  It may also help explain why the tradition has carried on unchanged over centuries, as each new generation takes ownership from an early age and children even play at Semana Santa, looking forward to being old enough to join the grown-up parades.

Children play 'pretend' Semana Santa

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