Easter Week Celebration and the Nazarenos

One of the most amazing spectacles we saw in Salamanca was the celebration of the holy week or Semana Santa.  I had always seen these celebrations on TV and was amazed, but to see in person was even more fantastic with the colors, marching bands playing mood music and the celebrants walking through the old city in reverence.

Easter week (or Semana Santa) processions are a mass mourning and public repentance of the festeros’ sins. Walking barefoot for hours, costaleros (or pall-bearers) staggering under the weight of the huge, graphic crucifixion scenes, and even self-harming, leave those who know no better open-mouthed and wondering why on earth anybody would put themselves through all this voluntarily.

The answer is tradition, immense pride, solidarity, a bringing together of the community and in many cases, religious devotion. Churches are open extra hours so townspeople can attend the numerous masses programmed and confess to their sins.  Semana Santa is a time when all Christians recognize and repent for our wrongdoings, reflecting the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us from ourselves.

One of the most striking spectacles of the festival are the Nazarenos (based on the people of Nazareth, as the name suggests) in their tall, pointy hats and matching robes with their faces completely covered, apart from their eyes. The sight of hundreds of slow-moving unidentifiable figures in these ghostly, alarming costumes can be a little unsettling, and they are frequently compared to a US-based organization.

Since the costumes of both are practically identical, but despite this, there appears to be no connection whatsoever between the two, although the Nazarenos came first. As for why the costumes are used in Semana Santa celebrations, the origins remain a mystery but the purpose is simple – their faces are covered in mourning, and also as a sign of shame for the sins, they have committed throughout the year. Somehow, though, they manage to soften the blow for spectators not in the know by the Nike trainers they wear with their costumes and the can of Amstel and half-smoked Ducado they are often seen carrying – a reminder that Semana Santa is, essentially, simply a fun festival.

During the Encuentro (meeting) between the effigies of the mourning Virgin Mary and the resurrected Christ on the morning of Easter Sunday, where it is traditional to throw a ton of rose petals – or, better still in some towns, masses of sweets – the Nazarenos remove their hoods to mark the final confirmation of the celebration and acknowledge the death of Jesus and resurrection of our Savior.  It was pretty amazing to be a witness of this over the final weekend of our trip.