After four days of nearly constant Semana Santa activities, we weren’t quite sure what to expect from the Madrugada, the Thursday night through Friday morning processions that highlight the week. Six procession leave their local churches after midnight and process through the night, returning around noon on Friday. Four of those processions are the most famous: Esperanza de Triana and Macarena, with their famous Virgins, huge crowds and rousing music, and Silencio and Gran Poder, two of the silent processions. Beth and I were both interested in seeing parts of them, and Beth suggested that heading out at 4:00 to see Macarena would mean a good view as many of the crowds would be gone...it being the middle of the night and all...and everyone having been out all day already. Oh how naive we were. I decided that I wanted to see Silencio leave its church; during our tour on Palm Sunday, Juan described to me how Silencio’s entry onto the street had been so moving to him that he had decided to join the brotherhood so that he could be a nazareno in the procession. As Silencio is silent, he explained, when they leave the church, the neighborhood shuts off the lights, and the crowd goes silent for the procession, leaving only the sound of the nazarenos walking and the light of the long parallel lines of candles. He also explained that the nazarenos hold their candles down at their sides until the Virgin left the church, at which point they raise their candles as the Virgin rises, sending a wave of candles up the street. Given the description, I felt I had no choice but to go...and it also seemed like a way to honor Juan for inviting me to join him on Palm Sunday.
I headed for the Plaza Del Duque straight after dinner...at 11:30...yes, we have adopted a Spanish schedule. Silencio does not leave the Church until 1:00am, but it seemed like I should get there to find a nice place for viewing. We have been spoiled by getting a front row view from our balcony, and I didn’t want to be stuck behind a bunch of people. It turned out that most of the street along the route was already 4-5 people deep...I was stunned. It was midnight, and thousands of people were already lined up to watch people walk silently by...I did a big circuit and found a spot at the junction of two roads, allowing me a front row spot - the road was transitioning from thoroughfare to standing room. I was amused to be next to two sharply dressed middle aged women with their two older teenage children; it was as though they had met for lunch on a Tuesday...but they were standing on a street at 12:30 in the morning. By 12:45, the street behind me was packed; there might have been 50 rows of people behind me - thousands upon thousands of people were there to see Silencio leave the church - like a silent rock concert almost. I was stunned, and I admit that I was also sort of wishing that I just stayed on my balcony. I knew that once the procession came, I would be stuck in that spot for about an hour, and I never really like that feeling. However, after an hour of waiting in the crowd, I felt like I should hold my spot - resist the temptation of the balcony...and my couch. The procession of Silencio was, in fact, much as Juan had described. A couple minutes before 1:00, the street lights were shut off and the crowd hushed; however, many apartments still had lights on, and with thousands of people, there was still a murmur of conversation, and there were thousands of cellphones raised for photos - mine among them - they are ubiquitous. Still, the silent procession was impressive - there was no candy distribution or wax balls here. The Nazarenos stood straight and raised their candles in unison. To my surprise, each paso was preceded by music, but here it was two clarinets and an oboe playing a quiet, doleful tune rather than a 150 person marching band beating out a rhythm. I looked for Juan, thinking that I might be able to spot him given that he is 6’4”, making him much taller than the average Spaniard, but the two foot tall pointed cap does seem to average out everyone’s height. Though as an American it is hard to shake the KKK image of the outfits, I can understand the anonymity and humility of the outfits.
I did not feel the sense of crowd claustrophobia as the procession passed; on the contrary, there was a sense of calm in the crowd as Silencio moved quietly by. I was pleased that I got the opportunity to experience the scene. I was also fascinated by the twenty minute walk back to our apartment at 2:15 in the morning. The streets were full of people heading in various directions or filling up cafes. I actually walked for a while behind a father dressed in his Nazareno robes and his young son in religious vestments...walking hand in hand under a full moon. I did manage about two hours of sleep before getting up to watch Gran Poder pass under our balcony with Beth and Maya. To our surprise, the streets were still alive with people. Unfortunately, as we watched, we heard a scream and watched as the Nazarenos scattered in fear as spectators ran in all directions. The procession quickly reformed, only to have the same thing happen again twenty minutes later. It turned out that similar things had happened in four other places at around the same time. The authorities do not yet know if the disruptions were coordinated, but they did cause a few injuries from crowd panic. Given events in London recently and Nice last year, a small instigation in a large crowd led to a ripple of rumors that created real fear in those processing and to the crowds around them. Reading the international news made it sound far more tragic than it was (“Tragic Stampede Mars Easter Celebrations”), but it was still a pity that there were such disruptions. Beth still decided to go out to see the Virgin of Macarena...she has diamonds for tears after all...and found the crowds still thick at 4:30 in the morning. We all enjoyed listening to the bands of Esperanza de Triana pass under our apartment at 7:30 in the morning. Despite being out all night and despite the disruptions, they were still at full vigor as they were beginning the journey back across the river to their church.
I admit that when I spent Palm Sunday with Juan and Julian, I didn’t fully grasp their adoration of Semana Santa...yes, I was struck by the splendor of the pasos (floats), but I still didn’t really understand the depth of their feelings for the event. I was amazed by the devotion of the crowds, I enjoyed the pageantry and I loved by the feat (feet) of the costaleros carrying 4000lb works of art through the streets...but that did not seem to correspond to the feelings Juan and Julian - or to the massive crowds, most of whom were locals who come every year. However, something subtle happened throughout the week; Beth and I found that we didn’t want to miss the processions if possible. The mix of ritual and music became transfixing. Beth commented that she wanted to hear the bands in the background everyday - even at home. And, even if it was just watching the Nazarenos, wearing robes and pointed caps, walk in two rows quietly down the street, I wanted to watch...I was drawn to it...there is some peace in the ritual. Perhaps this is where I misunderstand religion; I am so busy rejecting the logic of the story that I fail to appreciate the power of the ritual and of the communal experience. In other words, it was not just the pasos - the massive, moving images of Jesus and the Virgin, it was the music and the movement and the smells and the ritual all combined into one. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I came to understand how Juan and Julian could fall in love with Semana Santa. The reason, I think, that I didn’t understand it at first is because I was failing to think about how one tends to fall in love. Though one might be attracted to the flash of beauty or to overwhelming charm, one falls in love through a multitude of subtleties: the touch of a hand, an act of kindness, a soft look, an honest smile, an awkward laugh, and perhaps above all, the repetition and constancy of these traits ...these are the traits that actually make your heart melt. I am not sure that I fell in love with Semana Santa, not yet at least, but I certainly grew to understand how and why so many people have.