Before I write anything else: No, it’s not the KKK. The Spaniards had these robes and hats first.
Semana Santa, or the days spanning from Palm Sunday to Easter, are some of the most important of the year for Spanish Catholics. In a country where religiosity is much lower than it has been in the past, the traditions for this particular holiday are still going strong. While the holiday is celebrated all over the peninsula, it is most famous and extravagant in Andalucía, although some argue that it is purest in the region of Castilla y León, just north/northwest of Madrid.
I had ten days off for the Easter holiday, and rather than jetting off on another international adventure, I stayed in the country, traveling north to various cities and towns in Galicia and then south to Sevilla and Granada. Since I studied abroad during the fall semester, this was my first Semana Santa in Spain, and I had no doubt that despite my Jewish upbringing and now atheist viewpoints, I wanted to experience Holy Week in Andalucía. Lucky for me, a good friend of mine has a palco (special reserved seating; there’s a waitlist comparable to Red Sox season tickets) in the family, so we were able to get a great view of the processions. Even without VIP status in Granada, I had no problem seeing the spectacle up close and personal there as well.
Each procession is under the domain of a different church. They leave from and return to their home church, so naturally each follows a unique path; however, there is an official route that all of them pass through at some point during their trek around the city. In one procession, you will usually see two floats (or pasos): one of Jesus Christ in one of the stages of the Passion, and the other of the Virgin. Different churches wear different colors and have different music, numbers of participants, and sometimes numbers of floats (one rather than two).
These are the people who you probably think look like the KKK. But, as I mentioned earlier, the KKK were the ones who ripped off Semana Santa for unclear reasons (ironic, because one of the many things they’re against is Catholicism). The nazarenos are penitents, which is one of the reasons they cover their faces; some even walk barefoot as a way to show their repentance. They carry flags, banners, crosses, and/or long candles held across their bodies.
These are the men who carry the enormous heavy floats during the processions, which can last up to 14 hours, though they switch off periodically. As the floats have long velvet skirts around them, onlookers can only see the costaleros’ feet shuffling slowly in unison as the paso gently sways down the street.
Each procession is accompanied by a marching band, which plays different music according to the float, alternated with periods of simple drumbeats.
The important exception is El Silencio, a one-float procession of Jesus on the cross. As the name suggests, the procession is conducted in complete silence, to honor the solemnity of the moment the float depicts. The streetlights were turned off in the main square where I watched El Silencio in Granada, and thousands of spectators shh-ed each other even at the slightest whisper. Buddhist or Catholic, pious or atheist, the moment sends chills down one’s spine, period.
People of all ages, from toddlers to grandparents in wheelchairs, participate in the processions. In some, small children were dressed as nazarenos, while in others, they wore similar clothing without the hat and face covering, and walked around, making sure all of the nazarenos’ candles were lit. Children in the audience also play a role: asking the marching penitents’ for candy and small pictures of Christ and the Virgin, and comparing their loot with one another. It is also traditional for children to bring a ball of aluminum foil to the processions and hold it under nazarenos’ candles to catch the dripping wax and thus slowly increase the diameter of the ball.
Many of the nazarenos were women, yet there is also a special role only for females: dressing in mantilla. These beautiful silk head coverings were more common hundreds of years ago, but now they are reserved for Semana Santa, weddings and other formal occasions.
In addition to gawking at the beauty and intensity of the Semana Santa processions, my vacation week included attending ten minutes of Palm Sunday mass in the famous cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, climbing up the only still functioning Roman lighthouse in La Coruña, tasting all kinds of seafood in small towns along the Galician coast, enjoying the best mollete de jamón y tomate ever in Sevilla, and leisurely taking in the hippy, andaluz, and tapas-obsessed culture of Granada. Semana Santa is ‘cursed’ in terms of weather, and this year it took place during the rainiest March in Spain in 66 years (the rain in Spain did not stay mainly on the plain), but soaking boots and frizzy hair never killed anyone.
(Full disclosure: this crash course in Spain’s Holy Week comes from personal observations in Santiago de Compostela, Sevilla and Granada, supplemented by conversations with Spaniards and some basic additional research. It is by no means an authoritative or exhaustive description of the holiday’s history and tradition).