Letters from Madrid – Semana Santa Processions

This is a good video taken from the crowd of the Macarena Paso I describe below during a procession in Madrid last week.

27 May 1996

Semana Santa — Processions
We went to a couple of processions during Semana Santa (Holy Week). A little after six on Thursday the 4th of April we walked to the centro to see a procession. We got just beyond Plaza Mayor and hit the crowds. Tristan had to stop and pet the horses of the nation guard. The guardsmen where dressed in fancy blue and white uniforms with epaulets and ropings, fancy buttons, and ornate silver helmets. The crowds were already very large and it looked difficult to get the procession that was starting at seven, so we waited where we were. Tristan was getting impatient, since it was 7:30 and the procession we were waiting on would not start until 8:00. I finally sent her to play on the scaffolding set against a building about 25 feet from were we were standing. This was entertaining enough to keep her occupied. From that vantage point she could see a glimpse of the procession we were on our way to see as it passed north of us. The procession we were now waiting on started and it was painfully slow. The crowd filled the streets and plazas as far as you could see. The police were in front trying to clear a path for the procession. As you gazed out across the sea of people standing in wait, mist rose from the crowd as the twilit waned, giving the impression of a cool misty evening in olden times. The mist, however, was the cigarette smoke rising above the crowd.

The lead cross bearer wearing a black hood like a Clansman’s hood would process 10 or 15 steps and stop. The procession of hooded fellows following would process up and stop behind, each had a large candle of at least 5 feet in length in his hands. The hooded men are called “nazarenos”. The line of nazarenos, two by two created a line two long blocks in length. At last four men bearing ornate silver scepters (about 8 or 10 feet high) with candles atop appeared at the top of the street followed by a group of 6 or 8 nazarenos. Then the paso appeared moving very slowly then being set down to rest. A mist rose in front of the Cristo, which was incense that was waved in front of the paso as it processed. This paso was an ornately decorated float with gold sides in shapes of fine ornate serving wear or tea sets. At the corners were fancy silver posts with lanterns containing four candles each. In the center stood a larger than life size statue of Jesus bearing a cross of timber with ornate gold capped ends. After a pause of maybe five minutes the paso would arise with a sudden jump as the men under it picked it up, followed by applause and encouragement that came from the crowd for their effort. It moved slowly forward, at most 200 feet, and then was again set to rest. The paso was at least 8 feet wide and twice that in length. The tip of the cross, marking the highest point, was about the same height as the length when the thing was picked up. I would guess there were 18 to 24 men carrying it, you could not see them under the float. It looked as if it could weigh up to 3000 pounds. There was some singing during the rest period.

After the Cristo had passed a space of a block was left and more hooded nazarenos in, some in dark blue and others in dark green hoods, rounded the corner at the top of the street. It had taken more than an hour for the Cristo to pass and the following procession was not any quicker. The nazarenos procession was of the same length as the pervious, but as the four silver scepters appeared at the top of the street we could hear the sound of marching drums and brass playing. At length another paso appeared lit up with as many as 50 to 100 large candles of 2 to 3 feet in length stair stepped on the front of the paso. The sides were an ornate silver in more finely worked impressions than that of the previous. There were five large bouquets of white flowers along each side and a fancy candelabra the curled and twisted its way down the back of the float (like something from Dr. Seuss), creating a balanced symmetry with the cascade of candles in the front. There were five or six twisted silver posts on each side of 8 to 10 feet in length that supported a canapy covering the paso. In the middle was the Virgin Mary with a pretty, tearful face, morning her Christ, who is bearing the cross, somewhere up ahead. She wore a nice gown with a cape that was spread to the back of the paso between the candelabras, terminating about 3 feet passed the end of the underlying structure, and lined up with the end of the candelabras. In contrast to Cristo’s paso, the Virgin’s was animated, always swaying to the cadence of the drummers when in motion. She seemed to dance. She would move slowly and then in a burst advance forward very quickly, then be set to rest. At rest there would often be a flamenco singer singing either from the crowd or under the paso. A crowd member would yell “Macarena” (the name given this virgin) and the crowd would yell “guapa” (pretty). After the fourth “Macarena” the crowd would chant “guapa, guapa, guapa y guapa”.

After she passed, Tristan wanted to follow, so we did. The crowds were large and you were pressed and pushed as the crowd moved forward. It was 10:00 p.m. when we started following. As the people moved over the uneven, cobbled streets in a shuffle, their heads and shoulders moved side to side. The movement, as heads seemed to crisscross up ahead, looked like the teeth of a shaver moving in slow motion. When you looked at the whole crowd moving as far as you could see, it looked liked the sea agitated by sideways currents and gentle winds. The temperature was pleasant, the night air clear, and dead still. The candles remained lit, even with the sudden jerk of rising the paso, which violently shook the canopy, and candleabras.

At each church we passed, which was three while we lasted, the Virgin would stop, turn to face the door and do a little dance, stop, rest, start again, turn and go on. Tristan started getting tired and whiney, but we wanted to see were the procession would lead. There was one stop were the musicians and the carriers went into a couple of bars and got sandwiches and drinks. We got Fantas and rejoined the march, which began without many of the musicians, who were still munching on their bocadillos. We were amazed how the tiny bars served all those people. The procession continued on and we met up with the Cristo in a Plaza, the Virgin turned and went into the plaza up to a church door and again paid her respects. As we continued on, the hour was 1:30 AM when another follower told us the processions don’t finish until 3:00 AM or after. Laurie and I wanted to stick it out, but we could see Tristan was not going to last another 2 hours or more plus a 30 minute walk home. We gave up and went home. Laurie and I saw a couple of other processions. They were similar and always packed with people. I get tired of the crowds and being in constant physical contact with total strangers. We left off at that.

12 thoughts on “Letters from Madrid – Semana Santa Processions

  1. What an incredible time (stay) that must have been for the three of you…
    The video is so far from anything I’ve ever seen that it seems surreal, sort of alien. I’m sure the nighttime adds to that. That and my fantasy writer imagination taking over! LOL. Hugs.

  2. What an amazing thing to witness and be part of. The music sounds great and the sense of community is wonderful. (And I love that they stop at both churches and bars!)

    • I’m pleased that I have been able to recover and read the files. The file formats are 20 years old (like 20,000 in cyber years) and the programs I used to make them were abandoned by the developers not long after I created the files. The files from 1996 have been fairly easy to extract text from. The files from 1997 to 2000 are going to be a lot more challenging.

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