Sunday, May 24, 2009

Incense and beer: One hell of a Holy Week

Seville is Spain at its most intense, and during Semana Santa Seville is at its most intense. The city’s deeply religious and traditional yet hedonistic nature is on full display throughout Easter Week, in an idiosyncratic celebration of world-class proportions like only the Andalusians could put on. The Sevillians make their passion for the Virgin remarkably evident during these holy days, yet their sacred celebration is more frivolous than solemn. In truth the general mood is downright riotous.

Throughout the week, the brotherhoods representing the city’s numerous cathedrals each put on a procession. The individual parades begin in the neighborhood churches and snake their way to the main cathedral (arguably the largest in Christendom) in the city center. These pasos consist of hundreds of marching hooded penitents of all ages carrying crosses, banners, or giant candles. (Shaking the KKK and witch connotations can take a bit of time for us Americans.) Some dedicated souls walk barefoot. The penitents stride to the beat of stirring dirges and stimulating drumbeats performed by a marching band. The youngest participants pass out candy to children and march accompanied by parents, lending a trick-or-treat element to the proceedings.

The highlight of the pasos are the floats, elaborately adorned with flowers, candles, jewels, and 16th-century figures from the Passion and weighing in at up to two tons. Underneath the platforms a team of parishioners slowly carts the load on their shoulders, taking frequent pauses to regain their strength.

The city basically transforms for these seven days — officials block off the streets, security swarms about, and the chaotic masses reach out to touch the platforms and snap photos. A journey of a few blocks can take hours of navigation. Sometimes the combination of an especially inspiring float or musical elegy will prompt an impassioned disciple to spontaneously break out into a waling, flamenco-style ode to the Virgin, earning a spirited closing applause. The processions begin in the afternoon and march on late into the morning hours.

Day and night crowds pack the hundreds of bars that double as restaurants lining the streets, consuming infinite tray-loads of gourmet-looking tapas and bottles of beer. The heavy fragrance of incense blows through the air in visible puffs, mixing with the smell orange blossoms and the aroma of plates piled high with tapas, mostly mariscos (assorted seafood) delicately fried to Andalusian perfection. Some families even camp out on lawn chairs with coolers. Seated on the curbs, grandmothers reveal the edges of their circulation-cutting knee-high stockings. It’s a week-long parade party and a very familial affair. Most onlookers are extended household clans, with the occasional couple or motley group of teenagers thrown in. A lone individual lost in the crowd inevitably begins to feel invisible.

On Maundy Thursday many women dress in black, some crowned with high combs holding black lace veils that fall down behind their knees. Despite the intense heat, it’s a crowd of handsome, leathery skinned men in suits and slicked-back hair with that notoriously Spanish machisto strut and heavily made-up women in panty hose teetering the cobbled streets in pointed heels.

The action climaxes on Good Friday at midnight, with the arrival of the most important paso bearing La Macarena, the bullfighting patron saint of Seville. Seville’s dedication to the Virgin is almost cult-like, with burly grown men nearly breaking into tears at her appearance. The lively proceedings continue until dawn.

Surprisingly, it's a quiet, family-oriented Easter Sunday that culminates the week's excessive exhibition of socializing, dining, and worshipping that epitomizes the Andalusian spirit.

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