Semana santa

8 April 2010

— Palmsonntag (Palm Sunday), Anselm Kiefer (2006). Via History of Our World.

A short time later, when the carpenter was taking measurements for the coffin, through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.

One Hundred Years of Solitude p. 144

Between Palm & Easter Sunday, all of Spain goes on holiday. The prices of plane tickets & hotel rooms go through the roof, the rhythms of city life change. The South is transfigured into something very much like a García Marquez novel — that is, into a place where magical realism isn’t a prettified aesthetic choice but rather an attempt to render the world accurately.

This time last year in Jaén, flowers rained from the sky & got under my collar, into my hair, piled in drifts around my feet, had to be swept from the streets. Women sing to the Virgen from wrought iron balconies. From every corner of the city echoes the sounds of distant drums. The pasos — the, um, Holy Week processions, we’ll say, to make it Anglophone — are a big, big deal. Every city, every village. Christs & Virgens on giant candlelit altars held on the shoulders of dozens of men hidden by velvet drapes, only their feet showing, sway, back and forth, in time. Massed horns play music that sounds exactly like the stuff Ennio Morricone composed for those Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. In Sevilla, on the night before Black Friday, the paso lasts thirteen hours & stretches for what looks like at least a half-mile, maybe more. Little kids run up between the hooded figures — the pointed hoods & robes of the cofraternities look, disconcertingly to Americans, exactly like KKK outfits — to collect the wax that drips from their candles.

We’re in the territory of archetypal Spain, tourists writing breathlessly, the Spain of painted tile & flamenco & dying bulls & baroque Catholicism that you get in dozens of travel accounts, the place all dressed up & exoticized — which still & all can’t take away from the strangeness of it when you’re actually there, but which makes it feel kind of cheap in retrospect.

Anyway: Up here things are different. There are still processions, of course, but the scale isn’t the same — they’re much smaller, the altars even, and the energy on the streets is totally different. Bilbao’s still a working town, and it empties out during holidays, becomes sleepy & dull. Everyone’s out of town. You see more graffiti making fun of the pasos, more people frankly antipathetic to them. In the south, even if you weren’t religious, Semana Santa pasos had an integral cultural component they don’t seem to here, and people weren’t as eager to disavow them.

Then again, a big reason that Semana Santa is still this big today is Franco, who held Spain in a kind of anachronistic timewarp for a half century. During the Second Republic, bullfights had become unpopular, and the left frequently tried to ban them (the Cataláns always hated them — they’ve just outlawed them as of last year). Catholicism was the same way — a lot of churches burned during the Civil War, a lot of irreligious peasants. It makes me wonder where all of this will be in twenty or thirty years, once the post-Franco generation is middle-aged.

I’ll leave you from a picture taken last year by a friend of mine from a rooftop in the Alameda de Hércules of la Macarena, that 13-hour paso. (Yes: It’s called La Macarena).

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