Many traditional events from all over the world exist due to religious backgrounds. Nowadays, while religion is losing its power, the meaning of these cultural festivities is changing. This shift is very clear in Catholic Spain. Festivities originally with a religious reason are turning more and more into events with just a cultural meaning.
Through the streets of the Andalusian city of Malaga echoes the slow beating of mourning drums. Dark rain clouds hang above the city and the day is slowly turning into the night. The streets are filled with people waiting for the brotherhood of The Last Supper to parade the religious statues through the main parts of the city. People look at the cloudy sky, eyes filled with fear. The procession cannot leave the church if it starts raining, because the water will damage the statues. At exactly five ‘o clock, the moment the procession should start, the rain starts poring down. Inside the church about 600 men who have been waiting for a year to carry the statues around, who have been preparing for this moment for so long, do not even try to keep their heads up. The first ones, among them many grown up men, start to cry. They are immediately comforted by the people around them, who need their support as well. While the rain starts to pour down even harder, the members of the brotherhood sing a sad song as they lift the statues of Christ and Maria in the air a couple of times.“She’s so beautiful,” comments a very old Spanish lady with tears in her eyes, while she looks at the statue of the Holy Virgin.
Spain is enchanted by Semana Santa, the holy week before Easter. Processions that portray the suffering of Christ and his mother, Maria, in glorious Baroque style are waiting to leave their churches with a lot of spectacle. Semana Santa was originally a party of mourning and suffering, but in a Catholic way. It’s a tradition that dates back to medieval times and takes place from Palm Sunday until Easter Sunday. In this time, Jesus Christ’s last week on Earth is commemorated, from his entry in Jerusalem during Palm Sunday up until his resurrection from the grave on Easter Sunday.
Each Catholic brotherhood has two statues to carry around the streets of Malaga for hours; one of Christ and one of the Holy Virgin. The processions fill the streets with people who want to see the parade of candles, music and members of different brotherhoods in Ku Klux Klan-like costumes. Some people walk barefoot for hours, while others carry the weight of huge crucifixion scenes around. It’s the time of self reflection, tradition, religious devotion, pride, and solidarity. It is also a way of bringing the community together.
Spain is one of the European countries where the main reason for this shift of events is very visible. Big Catholic parties are losing their religious meaning and becoming of more and more cultural importance. In 2010 still 70.5% of the Spanish habitants considered themselves catholic, but only 18% of the nation frequently goes to church. This contradiction can be explained by Spain’s past. During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (04-12-1892 / 20-11-1975), all people were forced by law to practice the Catholic faith. They had no choice until far in the 70s. This is why so many people still consider themselves Catholic, even though they are not really practicing. Since the breakdown of the Franco régime, the church has lost a lot of power. For instance, the number of Spanish people who consider themselves Catholic dropped 6% just two years after the fall of Franco’s dictatorship.
“But the processions during Semana Santa are still as important as they were in the past,” says Carlos Martinez Dominiguez, the head of Malaga’s Catholic Brotherhood Ruta Cofrade and writer of the book Semana Santa 2011. “It’s not possible to see Semana Santa apart from religion. But there’s definitely a shift going on if you look at the meaning of the holy week nowadays. The holy week is not that holy anymore. Most people join a brotherhood out of family and cultural tradition instead of religious motives. But the religious meaning definitely adds some special feeling to it. For everybody, religious or not. The processions in the street have a deep impact on people. It’s the music, the smell, the statues, the costumes, the candles, everything. It’s way more than ‘just an event’.”
Dominiguez does not think the shift from religious to cultural motives needs to be a problem. “People who join the processions participate because of many different reasons,” he continues. “But whatever reason they have, the members of a brotherhood are still very close and they feel almost like a family during the preparations and processions. Semana Santa is a good thing for our city, because it brings people closer. It makes them feel connected to each other.”
Rain and tears
Dominiguez words are confirmed by Javier, one of the members of The Last Supper-brotherhood, who is crying because the procession got cancelled. “It really breaks my heart that it can’t take place,” says 36-year old Javier. “I’m crying out of disappointment and frustration. I started to carry the statues around 11 years ago and this never happened.” Javier considers himself Catholic, but that’s not the reason why he joined the brotherhood. “My whole family has been a member of this brotherhood for generations,” he explains, tears still blinking in his eyes. “We are all going trough the same pain at this moment, only people who are in a brotherhood can understand how it feels when a procession is cancelled. The tradition of Semana Santa is very strong here. It’s just the disappointment, which is taking over my emotions. Combined with the bound I feel with my fellow brothers. This really had to be ‘our’ moment and it hurts that the highlight of our year wasn’t meant to be this time.”
Javier’s friend Juan Manual has to pause for a while before saying whether or not he thinks the processions still have religious meanings. “Yes, for some people they do,” he says thoughtfully. “But the original reason behind the procession is pretty harsh. ‘To feel the pain Christ and Maria felt caused by human beings,’ is not why we’re having these processions anymore. Most people don’t feel like they committed sins and they certainly don’t feel like they have to suffer. For me, and I think for many others, Semana Santa is a combination of a cultural and a religious week. Maybe nowadays it’s more a cultural than a religious festivity, but still many people in Malaga are Catholic. I think religion is what gives this week a deeper meaning.”