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SEMANA SANTA

As Covid restrictions end, Spain’s Easter traditions are resurrected

With Easter processions cancelled for the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, Spain's colourful Holy Week marches made their eagerly awaited return to the streets on Sunday.

As Covid restrictions end, Spain's Easter traditions are resurrected
Spanish actor Antonio Banderas takes part in the "Lágrimas y Favores" (Tears and favours) brotherhood's Palm Sunday procession in Malaga on April 10th, 2022. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

The holiday, which runs until Easter Day on April 17th, is a time when huge crowds traditionally gather to watch the elaborate processions in this deeply Catholic country.

Organised by brotherhoods, the parades feature dozens of people dressed in religious tunics and distinctive pointy hoods and elaborate floats topped with statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

Some of the processions date back hundreds of years.

READ ALSO: The essential guide to Easter in Spain in 2022

“We’re very excited after two years” of being unable to celebrate Holy Week, said Rafael Perez of the Work and Light Brotherhood that stages one of the processions in the southern city of Granada.

In Seville — whose 680,000-strong population doubles during Holy Week — people played traditional procession music over loudspeakers or sang mournful saetas from balconies, a capella ballads about the death of Jesus and the grief of his mother.

Everything was thrown up in the air in mid-March 2020 when the country went into lockdown as the virus took hold a month before Easter, hitting Spain badly as it spread like wildfire.

In one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, Spain cancelled all religious celebrations, prompting some to improvise festivities at home on their balconies, mostly in the south where Easter processions have been held for centuries.

The situation improved slightly last year, although with memories still fresh of the explosion of virus cases after Christmas the authorities imposed curfews and a ban on travel between regions that clouded the festivities.

The southern city of Seville’s impressive Holy Week parades, which had never been cancelled since 1933, were called off for a second year running in a move mirrored across Spain.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Semana Santa in Seville in 2022

Return of the tourists

This year, Spaniards want to make up for lost time and enjoy an Easter week as in times before the pandemic, when they made an average of seven million trips across the country to visit family or hit the beach, Statistica figures show.

People crowd the street and rooftop terraces of Seville to watch ‘La Paz’ brotherhood parading during the Palm Sunday procession during the first day of Holy Week in Spain. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

“Tourism and business prospects for Holy Week 2022, the first after two years of not being able to celebrate due to the pandemic, are close to 90 percent of the sales levels registered in 2019,” the Exceltur tourism association said on Thursday.

READ ALSO: Easter Holidays – What to expect if you’re coming to Spain 

In April 2019, a total of seven million foreign tourists visited Spain. Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto said she hoped to see 80 percent of that figure, which would bring much-needed relief to the country’s badly hit tourism sector.

Before the pandemic, Spain was the world’s second most popular tourist destination after France.

With more than 92 percent of its 47 million residents fully vaccinated, Spain last month embarked on a new strategy to treat the virus as an endemic illness like flu, dropping a requirement for people with mild cases of Covid-19 to self-isolate.

In February it ended a rule requiring people to wear masks outdoors and on April 20, just after Easter, it will also drop an indoor mask mandate, except in hospitals and on public transport.

Seville’s City Hall says it is expecting “a large turnout after two years without celebrations” with more than 70 brotherhoods ready to conduct their traditional marches through the city.

With hundreds of thousands of visitors expected, Andalusia’s regional government has recommended all participants wear masks and that testing be carried out on the many teams carrying the huge religious floats bearing statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ.

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SEMANA SANTA

‘We’re strong enough’: Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain's famous Semana Santa processions 30 years ago, female "costaleros" - as float bearers are known - remain a minority who still face resistance.

'We're strong enough': Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

On Holy Monday in the historic city of Granada in southern Spain, a team of 50 women rock rhythmically from foot to foot carrying a 1.5-tonne float topped with a statue of Jesus and Mary.

They support the weight on wooden ribs under the belly of the float as they inch forward through the city for ten hours.

A heavy velvet cloth draped over the float leaves only their white shoes visible to throngs of spectators lining the route.

The parades featuring dozens of people dressed in religious tunics and distinctive pointy hoods have returned this Holy Week after being cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic the past two years.

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain’s famous Easter processions 30 years ago, female “costaleros” — as float bearers are known — remain a minority who still face resistance.

Women have traditionally formed the back line of the processions, playing the role of mourners dressed in stylish black dresses, embroidered veils and intricately designed hair combs.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

At first “it was not accepted, women were talked bad about,” said Pilar del Carpio, a 45-year-old cashier who has been a shrine bearer since she was 13 and is proud to be one of the “pioneers”.

Today only three or four of Granada’s 30 brotherhoods, which stage the processions, include women costaleras.

“Maybe there are people who think it is not normal,” said Maria Auxiliadora Canca, a 40-year driving instructor who directs a team of float bearers in Ronda, another Andalusia city in southern Spain.

“Since our bodies are capable of doing it, and we do it with conviction, I don’t see why there should be a difference.”

‘Scandal’

But in Seville, which holds Spain’s most spectacular Easter parades, there are no women float bearers even though the city’s archbishop in 2011 issued a decree to put an end to gender-based discrimination in the city’s religious orders.

Opponents claim the task is too physically demanding, “not suitable” for women.

“It’s a scandal,” said Maribel Tortosa, 23, who manages an Instagram account called “Costaleras por Sevilla” dedicated to women float bearers.

People say that it is “ugly” to see a woman wearing a “costal”, the traditional padded sack used by bearers as protective headgear, she said.

Two female float bearers “Costaleras” of the “Trabajo y Luz” (Work and Light) brotherhood hug each other after ten arduous hours of heavy lifting. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

“But under a float, you don’t see anything,” she added.

Still, the emergence of women float bearers reflects the growing push by women in Spain into traditionally male-dominated fields since the return of democracy in the 1970s.

Spain’s oldest police force, the Guardia Civil, has since 2020 been headed by a woman — a first in its 178-year history.

And since Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez came to power in 2018, women have taken up most cabinet posts for the first time in history.

‘Strong enough’

In Granada, locals are no longer surprised to see women training on the streets in the lead up to Holy Week by lifting and carrying a float loaded with bricks.

The load “weighs more every hour”, even though the shrine bearers are replaced every half hour during the “Work and Light” brotherhood’s procession, which began Monday at four pm and ended at around one am, said Rafael Perez, who heads the team of women shrine bearers.

Working with women “changes absolutely nothing. I just have to treat them with more tenderness,” said Perez.

Among the women of this religious order was Montse Ríos, 47, who has been a bearer since she was 19 and who still feels “strong enough to go under”.

Her eldest daughter joined her this week under the float, while her youngest is a “pipera”, giving water to the procession participants.

“And we don’t lack that,” she added.

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