There’s one aspect of Sevilla that has really had an impact on me over the years: Semana Santa – Holy Week. The relationship I have with this festival is much like one with a new girlfriend: one minute I’m filled with joy, and the next I’m banging my head against the wall. This year, unfortunately, or fortunately, I won’t be around to enjoy the festival. It’s the first time I’ll miss it since I became a member of a brotherhood. Here are a few reasons why I’ll miss it.
The brass bands following the processions around the city make a fantastic atmosphere. I love how they play to the steps of the Christ or Virgin and make them look as though they are moving along with the music. Highlights of the week are when processions have to fit through tight gaps in the narrow streets and the music inspires the costelleros (the guys carrying the weight) to keep marching, and normally spread goosebumps through the crowd of people watching. Over the years I’ve managed to pick up a few tunes and I have my favourites. I couldn’t tell you the names, but I know how to whistle the tune (which often annoys the hell out of my wife).
This year Semana Santa is a bit late, so the smell of azahar – orange blossom – has almost passed. But the sweet aroma always adds to the occasion. One year my Dad came over and as a present my father-in-law wrapped up some blossom in a box so my Dad could take it back for my Mum as a present. It lasted the whole journey and when my Mum opened the box she almost started crying because of the powerful scent.
The crowds add to the spectacle too. It’s about the only time of year when I do tolerate having lots of people about (most of the time, see the next blog). The passion of the Sevillanos is impressive. The way they gather outside churches, in squares, up trees and lamp posts, and pack up the ancient cobbled streets is always bewildering.
In-law family time
There’s no way I would have become interested in Semana Santa had it not been for my wife and her family. During my first year I thought they were all nuts. I was expecting to have a relaxing holiday, but seeing seven or eight processions a day was knackering. Honestly, I was dragged all over the place, running about to catch the different processions from various angles in the city to see the same thing over and over again. I just didn’t get it.
Now I do though and this time of year is a special time to bond with them. My father-in-law is an expert on the art and history of Semana Santa and has taught me how to appreciate it. If you want to really get to know what the festival is about it’s always the locals who can tell you the most interesting stories and anecdotes. We normally meet each day for lunch, and spend the day together nipping in and out of the processions trying to find the best spots, all while having the odd beer and tapas. It’s a great family moment and I have a lot of memories with them.
Thursday night is my favourite part of the week. This is when the most profound processions leave their churches and do their penitence around Sevilla. We normally do it in stages. Perhaps we see one or two in the early hours of the morning (la madrugada) then we sleep for a couple of hours and get up early for the others. By the afternoon I’m normally shattered, but it’s worth it. The reason it’s the most important part of the week is because officially Jesus Christ died at 3 a.m.
It’s a spooky atmosphere and some of the processions are very serious. My favourite is El Silencio, which is quite short, but watching it come out of the church is impressive. The only problem is that the crowds can get aggressive and you have to get there an hour or so early to get a decent spot. El Gran Poder, the most life-like, and La Macarena, probably the most famous of all, are must sees. La Macarena leaves the church at about midnight and gets back about 1 or 2 in the next afternoon, with over 2,000 nazarenos following behind. One of my favourites is also Los Gitanos – the Gypsies – because I find the music the most powerful and inspirational. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been up all night and I’m normally tired, but I normally shed a tear or two when I see that one.
If you’re in Sevilla for Semana Santa then definitely make time to see the processions during Thursday night. I’m gutted I won’t be here to see it this year!
Doing my penitence
Without doubt this is the moment I will be checking my watch more when I’m back in England. This would be the fourth year in a row that I would have done my penitence with el Cristo de Burgos. It goes out on Wednesday late afternoon and it’s done in silence, one of the most serious ones in Sevilla.
If you had told me during my first Semana Santa that I would be participating in a procession then I would have said you were mental. Firstly, I wasn’t catholic, and secondly I was pretty scared about the whole ordeal. I’d never seen such devotion to something before and the faith was beyond me.
But over the years I’ve warmed to the festival and become to understand it. For years my cuñao – brother-in-law, and suegro – father-in-law, tried to persuade me to join their brotherhood.
“You’ll be the only guiri in Sevilla doing a penitence,” they used to say. But I wasn’t up for it. Not only because I didn’t really understand it and I wasn’t catholic, but the whole religious thing was daunting. However, after getting baptised and doing the communion so that I could get married in a church, I felt more ready and able to join the brotherhood.
I’d like to write more about what it’s like to actually do the penitence, so I’ll leave that for another blog, but the whole experience is very spiritual, calming (most of the time, see the next blog), and cleansing. I also see it as a way to bond with my wife’s family. They appreciate the effort I have made to become part of society here and that’s important for me if I’m going to live here permanently. I know they are upset that I’m not here to do it this year, but next I’ll be able to and hopefully my son will be old enough to participate as a monaguillo too.
If you’re in Sevilla for Semana Santa then have a good one. Next week I’ll continue this theme with the reasons why I won’t miss Semana Santa this year.