Why Spain’s Easter white hoods are a symbol of penance, not of right-wing extremism

Why Spain's Easter white hoods are a symbol of penance, not of right-wing extremism
Jaime Reina / AFP
Tourists could be forgiven for gasping in horror at the first sight of the white hoods marching towards them at one of Spain's Easter processions.
For many, the first thing that comes to mind is Ku Klux Klan’s terrorism, but capirotes, the white pointy hats, are used during Semana Santa’s celebrations and don’t mean what people think.

Whenever we see a pointy, cone-shaped, white hat we straight-away think about the KKK: their headwear is branded in our collective imagination and has become a symbol of racism, fanaticism and violence.

Compared to the Spanish capirote, the KKK’s pointy hat is more recent: according to an article published by the Israeli newspaper Hareetz, when the Klan originally formed in 1865, members did not wear the garment, as they were “too disorganised and decentralised to wear a uniform.”

The group’s official uniform was introduced in the early 20th century by William J. Simmons, who re-established the KKK in 1915: members started wearing a uniform, as a way to become more cohesive and centralised.

The hoods ensured anonymity of Klansmen so that they couldn’t be recognised and held accountable for their actions.

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP

According to some sources, Simmons possibly decided to adopt the cone-shaped hat in order to copy the outfit present in D.W. Griffith’s classic film, ‘Birth of a Nation’. Others link the use of the pointy hat to “folk traditions of carnival, circus and minstrelsy.”

READ ALSO: Seven surprisingly strange traditions celebrated at Easter in Spain

A Ku Klux Klan initiation in Mississippi, 1923.The Library of Congress

However, Spaniards don’t see anything controversial in wearing them during Semana Santa celebrations. In the week preceding Easter Sunday, Spanish cities are filled with festivities; most of them involve religious processions, where people wear traditional costumes, such as the capirote.

Photo: Jaime Reina / AFP

Traditionally, capirotes were used during the times of the Spanish Inquisition: as a punishment, people condemned by the Tribunal were obliged to wear a yellow robe – saco bendito, aka blessed robe – that covered their chest and back. They also had to wear a paper-made cone on their heads with different signs on it, alluding to the type of crime they had committed.

Centuries later, cofrades (people affiliated to Catholic brotherhoods) and nazarenos started to use them during Easter processions to symbolize their status as penitents. Today, the capirote still indicates the penitent’s attempt, through penance, to get closer to God; it also covers the person’s face, in order to mask their identity. 

Whenever you see people strolling the streets of Spain wearing capirotes, you can breathe a sigh of relief, as they are not right-wing terrorists but worshippers who are doing penance.

By Ilaria Grasso Macola / The Local

READ MORE: The essential guide to Easter in Spain

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