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

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.

Why Spain's Easter white hoods are a symbol of penance, not of right-wing extremism
If you see people strolling the streets of Spain wearing white pointy hoods, rest assured they are not Klansmen. Photo: Jaime Reina/AFP
For many, the first thing that comes to mind is the Ku Klux Klan, but capirotes, those eye-opening white pointy hoods, are a quintessential part of Semana Santa celebrations in Spain and don’t represent what foreign visitors think.

The KKK’s cone-shaped headwear is branded in our collective imagination as negative 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”.

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

However, Spaniards don’t see anything controversial in wearing this headgear 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 (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.

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

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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Priest outlaws coffins at Spain’s strange ‘Living Dead’ festival

The new priest of a Galician village famed for holding a 'Living Dead' procession in which live people are paraded around in open coffins has banned this year's bizarre spectacle, claiming that it has more to do with witchcraft than religion.

Priest outlaws coffins at Spain's strange 'Living Dead' festival

The Os Mortos Vivos (Living Dead) fiesta held in the village of Santa Marta de Ribarteme in Galicia (northwest Spain) will not be quite as peculiar this year.

That’s because the village’s new priest has decided to ban the day’s star tradition – the Procession of the Shrouds – which sees living people carried around in open coffins through the packed streets.

Usually those who ‘play dead’ in the caskets are locals who have escaped death in real life and it’s their relatives who carry the coffins on their shoulders.

But according to el cura (the priest), the custom has lost its religious significance and morphed into something more sinister.

People who have escaped death in real life lie in caskets and are carried in procession by relatives as a gesture of gratitude. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Speaking to La Sexta TV channel, Father Francisco Javier explained he was against the tradition because, whilst it was popular, it generates “a lot of superstition, a lot of witchcraft, a lot of nonsense”.

The vast majority of Ribarteme’s villagers don’t want to lose this strange ritual which takes place every year on July 29th on the feast day of the local parish’s most important saint, Santa Marta.

One man described the decision as “horrible… because I’ve been coming here [for the event] since I was a boy”.

“It’s only the priest who wants to ban it, it’s a disgrace because it’s a tradition that’s always been like this,” another woman commented.

The Mayor of Santa Marta de Ribarteme, Xosé Manuel Rodríguez, recognised the event as being of cultural interest, and was more optimistic about recovering the spooky tradition.

“We are sure that if it will return,” Rodríguez told La Sexta. “We are going to recover a tradition that all of us would like to see continue”.

A smiling woman is carried in a coffin by relatives during the annual “Procession of the Shrouds”. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Unknown origins

The peculiar tradition of carrying living people around in open coffins has long taken place in the neighbouring Pontevedra villages of As Neves and Santa Marta de Ribarteme.

Some say it came about as a way for people to give thanks to Saint Martha for saving them or a loved one from death, an illness or an accident – or to implore her to do so in future. 

But no one is truly sure about the procession’s origins.

According to a book about the casket carrying published in As Neves, the tradition could date back to the Medieval Crusades. 

Nobles who left Galicia for the Middle East discovered in France the story of Saint Martha, whose brother Lazarus was raised from the dead when Jesus visited their home, according to the Bible’s account.

When they returned, they thanked the saint for having spared them from death by occupying their own coffins, according to this book.  

Expect to see plenty of emotion at the Procession of the Shrouds, even from the ‘living dead’. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Another explanation is offered by Carlos Hernández, a sociologist who wrote a thesis about the procession.

In the past, people would buy their own coffin while they were still alive when they had the means or when a family member was ill, he said.   

If a seriously ill person survived, they would donate their coffin to the local parish for those who could not afford one.

The procession is similar to other rituals in Spain that depict the fight being good and evil, life and death, according to Hernández.

“Its about daring to stare death in the face, looking at Evil, so that life wins,” he argued.

Another village in Galicia also stages a procession with coffins, but in this case they are empty.