As Easter approaches us once again in icy Durham I can’t help but look back to this time last year, living in the heart of Sevilla, the home of salty tapas, sweet vino tinto and hot, dry Andalucían sun. In Spain and much of South America, Easter is a far greater celebration than anything we have in the UK, and in Sevilla, especially, the celebrations run wild. Every street opens up to carnival-like scenes of colour and noise, and glimpses of strident Catholicism stream through every snapshot of Hispanic Easter festivity.
Semana Santa – to us, Holy Week – is easily Andalucía’s most impressive cultural celebration. The week of processions follows the Easter story, ending at Easter Sunday, with pasos, or floats, dictating the events. Hooded figures called Nazarenos parade the streets wearing the colours of their brotherhood and church. They carry the floats and step in unison with the marching bands that lead from the front of the processions, in a slow movement across the city. The Nazarenos hold long candles that drip hot, coloured wax along the stone streets, drawing out the route of the paso as it criss-crosses with those that have gone before it. Children traditionally scurry behind and collect the wax, moulding it into balls which they keep and add to year on year, like a globe of blended colour that stays warm in their eager hands.
On some days, an elated, joyous music reverberates against the great buildings and balconies that mark out the winding paths of the processions, whilst on others the instruments stop altogether, and only the heavy beat of the drum thuds in time with the motion of feet – often bare against the ground in the night air, or even shackled, as a stronger expression of penitence. Maundy Thursday holds the most poignant night of festivity in Sevilla, where the crowds stand, shoulder to shoulder, along the edges of narrow streets in silence and respect as the procession treads its way along, from dusk until dawn. All that is heard is the beat of the drums and the padding of feet, and the procession is only lit by the candles. The otherwise noisy restaurants and bars switch into silence and darkness as the processions near so that the flames can silently illuminate the float above, where a Christ or a Virgin model sits on a pedestal amongst intricately swirled gold and silver decoration, with countless candles and flowers.
And from the silence, every now and again, bursts out a Spanish saeta from somebody in the crowd – a raw, a cappella song that cries out to Christ and the Virgin from just one voice in the thousands of silent spectators. The week is enchanting, and by Easter Sunday the traditional costumes, overcrowded streets and impossibility of sleep become an ordinary part of daily life, whether you’re interested in the processions or otherwise. The English set-up of chocolate eggs and a Sunday lunch flattens in its comparison with the energy and spirit that electrify the Spanish air, and the joy and passion that wash through the narrow streets. Semana Santa is a burning delight that sucks in every generation, each bar and café crammed to the brim 24 hours a day and the start of the springtime heat slowly baking the soft, stone streets that the spectators heave their way along, elegantly dressed and chewing excitedly on dry, salty pipas in await of the next part of this Easter show. The churches fling open their doors in worship and in welcoming, and the city rises in an intoxicating flurry of emotion and elation. I felt it then, and looking back I can feel it again now.