Seven strange traditions celebrated at Easter in Spain

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Seven strange traditions celebrated at Easter in Spain
Spanish actor Antonio Banderas takes part in the "Lagrimas y Favores" (Tears and Favours) brotherhood Palm Sunday procession in Malaga. Photo: Jorge Guerrero / AFP

Easter week is celebrated in Spain like nowhere else on earth, and Spaniards take their Holy Week traditions very seriously, even if some of them - to the outsider - seem a little bit bonkers.


From the Catalan town where residents dress up as skeletons to the practice of freeing two dozen inmates from prison every Easter, Spain has its share of surprisingly strange Holy Week activities.

Pub crawl procession
In 1929, a well-known character in the northern Spanish city of León was run over by a rubbish truck while he was relieving himself at the city walls. His name was Genaro Blanco, a bon-vivant who loved his prostitutes almost as much as his liquor. His mourning drinking buddies decided to pay tribute to him on Maundy Thursday, the anniversary of his death. Year after year, more followers have joined Genarín’s bar-hopping pagan procession, the record being 15,000 in 2005.
Deadly dancing 
While most of Spain holds traditional Maundy Thursday processions, the Catalan town of Verges (Girona) sees five of its residents, including three children, dress up in skeleton costumes, carry Death’s sickle and dance around the streets to the sound of drums. It resembles other 'danse macabre' celebrations across Europe, all of which have been around since medieval times to remind us that no matter one's station in life, the Dance of Death unites all.


Hoods and hats
Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP
The long conical hats worn by the members of some brotherhoods during Spain’s Easter celebrations have nothing to do with the Ku Klux Klan. Instead, they originate in the hats worn by people found guilty of religious crimes in the Spanish Inquisition. Those criminals would walk the streets in the hats while they were mocked and insulted by the crowds. By donning the hats in Spain’s Easter celebrations, penitents are also re-enacting Christ’s road to Calvary.
Get out of jail free card
If you’re Catholic and in jail in Spain, you might just be in luck. In 1759, a riot broke out in a Málaga prison after inmates found out Easter processions would be cancelled due to a plague outbreak. They forced their way out, carried Jesus’ image through the streets and then miraculously returned to their cells. King Charles III was so impressed that from that day on he decided to free two dozen jailbirds every Easter. The tradition lives on to this day.
Enter the turbos
Photo: Pedro Armestre/AFP
Christian traditions take a turn for the surreal in the city of Cuenca when participants in the ‘Road to Calvary’ procession mock Jesus on his way to the cross. The turbos, as they are known, are meant to represent the Jews present during Christ’s death sentence and ensuing crucifixion. For twelve hours, they jostle the nazarenos, or penitents, and prevent them from carrying Jesus's image through the streets.


Alcoholic lemonade with a dark past

One of Spain's most questionable Easter celebrations is held in the town of Bierzo in León. If you are ever around that way during Holy Week you might be surprised, if not shocked, to hear people saying "let's go kill the Jews" - "salir a matar Judíos" -  as they knock back glasses of special wine-lemonade.

There are various theories as to how this came about, but the common story for how this tradition started is that back in the 14th century, a nobleman named Suero de Quiñones owed money to a Jewish lender. But instead of paying it off, he rallied others against the Jews, saying that they had killed Jesus. Between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Quiñones and his supporters stormed the Jewish quarter and killed many people, including the money lender.

To celebrate the massacre, Quiñones and his group drank wine, beginning the start of the tradition that still exists today in the name of the Holy Week drink. It is a vestige of the anti-Semitism that prevailed in much of Spain in the past centuries and locals assure that they don’t mean to offend anyone with the phrase, they claim it's only 'tradition'. However, in recent years they have been getting a lot of backlash and the president of Tarbut Sefarad, a network of Jewish people in Spain has criticised the act and has called for the name to be changed.
Crucifixion trek
Photo: Pedro Armestre/AFP
Although not quite as bloody as the ones seen in some parts of South America, Taking place in  Valverde de la Veras in Extremadura ‘Via Crucis’ is far from being pain-free. Participants, known as empalaos, have their bodies tightly strapped to a wooden cross with rope and then walk barefoot through the town streets for hours, their faces always covered with a veil. Their march represents the 14 stations of the cross, symbolising Christ carrying the cross to his crucifixion.



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