Sevilla is famous for its Holy Week processions. When most people (even in Spain) think of Holy Week, they imagine Sevilla, or at the very least, Andalucía. But hold up a second …
What is Holy Week anyway?
In my part of the U.S., we grew up celebrating Easter. In Spanish, the word is Pascua, but you won’t often Spaniards talking about Pascua. Rather, they speak with fervent passion about Holy Week, procesiones, pasos, and costaleros. I know: I just got real with you on the Spanish vocabulary, but we’ll get to that in a bit. The important thing to remember is that Easter celebrations here last more than a week, starting with viernes de dolores (the Friday before Palm Sunday) up to lunes de Pascua (Easter Monday, the day after Easter Sunday). As I work at a high school, my holidays lasted from Friday, April 11, to Monday, April 21. Think of it as my spring break. While many choose to travel abroad during this time, most of the Zamoranos I know stay put to celebrate Holy Week in their hometown.
Holy Week started in the Middle Ages as a way to make penance and to remind the people about the Passion of the Christ. Generally the processioners wear nazareños (penitential robes) and capirotes/caperuzos (hoods) to mask their identities. They may carry processional candles or wooden crosses. Some walk the streets barefoot.
Every procession is carried out by a cofradía/hermadad, a brotherhood. In Sevilla people are generally a member of one, but in Zamora, membership is much less costly, and many choose to be a member of more than one. In the procession, the brothers (and sisters) either walk or carry a paso (from Latin: scene, suffering), which are elaborate religious floats. They often weigh quite a bit, meaning that those who carry it (called costaleros) have to be ready to support quite a lot of weight for many hours! Good thing there are breaks! These pasos are often centuries old, and they are the main draw for those who come to watch the processions. The pasos are often accompanied by bands playing marchas procesionales, or processional marching music.
Holy Week in Zamora
Spain’s oldest Holy Week procession is not from Sevilla or Málaga—it’s from Zamora! The earliest processions can be traced back to a 12th-century written by King Alfonso X’s brother:
“… Otro si el obispo e el Cabildo e la clerecía de Çamora ayan libremiente entrada e salida sobre la puerta de Mercadiello, para cantar los viersos e fazer presentaçión de Nuestro Sennor en día de Ramos a servitio de Dios, e del Rey, e de mí, e a onra de la cipdat, assí commo fue siempre usado e otorgado por el Conceyo..
Confession: I love that old Castilian, and the fact that Zamora was spelled Çamora.
Zamorans are almost universally proud of their Holy Week, declared Fiesta of International Tourist Interest of Spain in 1986. They even have a statue dedicated el Merlú, members of a brotherhood who play the cornet and drum to call the brothers to start the procession. (Video here)
Holy Week in Spain differs from that of Andalucía in that it is quite somber. It is the main social event of the year. There is always something going on: a procession, a mass, a speech, a meal … from sun up to sun down, if you want to be doing something, you can be. Music is characteristic of the daytime processions, whereas silence and meditation mark the nighttime. My favorite bit is one in which Mario participates on the night of Maundy Thursday, where the hermanos cantores sing The Miserere, a hauntingly beautiful song. After two and a half hours of procession, the lights are turned off as the brothers of Jesús Yacente stop in the Viriato Plaza. The crowd falls silent, and all that can be heard are tinny bells rung by a few brothers. But suddenly the silence is broken by the brothers’ voices as they sing:
Miserere mei Deus, secundum magnam, misericordiam tuam
After this brief interval, the brotherhood of Jesús Yacente continues their slow, halting procession.
Another procession in which Mario participates is El Silencio. In this one, the brothers take a vow of silence, swearing not to speak for the duration of the procession. Again, this procession, which takes place at night, is markedly different from those in southern Spain or even those that take place during the day in Zamora.
Related (and slightly humorous): The brothers of this procession were none too happy when they found out the final game of the Copa del Rey would be played on the same day. (This happened three years ago as well.) They even sent out a nationwide proposal, claiming that this would hurt tourism in Zamora. (Spain has two religions: Catholicism and football soccer.)
These are just two personal examples of Semana Santa in Zamora. If you want to really get into, Radio Televisión Española broadcast one procession, one that my husband and brother-in-law were in. Actually, Mario shows up in this video (at a distance, and you have to work really hard to see him)!