Thinking back, what does Easter evoke for you? For me it is baked ham and hot cross buns. It is also egg coloring kits, with their flimsy wires for dipping and the dyes that smelled of vinegar. It is a new dress and a brunch buffet with my Nana in the bright atrium of an Orlando hotel. It is roasted lamb carved under the warm red light of heat lamps and served with clover green jelly.
And I couldn’t leave out the Easter Bunny, who would hide my colored eggs around the house and leave me baskets filled with treats. There were pastel pink and yellow marshmallow Peeps, Reese’s peanut butter-filled eggs and a big milk chocolate bunny, which I usually ate ears first. After collecting the obvious prizes, I would weed through the tangled plastic strips of Easter grass in the basket to make sure not one jelly bean had been left behind.
Here in Spain, my childhood Easter feels lifetimes away. There are no egg hunts or Easter grass or chocolates with peanut butter centers. The Easter Bunny is a curiosity at best.
So what will my son Mateo’s Easter memories be? At two and a half, he is at an age where lasting memories are beginning to take shape. Here are some of the sights, sounds and flavors forming his early Easter impressions in Murcia.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions in Murcia
Semana Santa in Murcia is a festive and colorful time of year that is magical for children. The Semana Santa processions are the heart of the magic. I know this in part through my friends who remember the awe they felt and want their own children to experience the same. I have also seen the amazement in Mateo’s eyes as the processions pass by, with their trademark drum beats that he has been practicing on his toy drum ever since Good Friday (parrúm, parrúm, parrúm púm púm).
Instead of the Easter Bunny, the main protagonists of the season here are the nazarenos (Nazarenes). While historically speaking, Nazarene was a term used to refer to Jesus and early Christians, in a modern context in Spain, nazarenos are Semana Santa procession participants.
They are also the subject of seasonal arts and crafts for kids, such as the “nazarenos” Mateo brought home from nursery school:
Mateo alternately calls the nazarenos “Reyes,” the kings who bring children gifts on January 6, and “marcianos” (aliens). To him, the nazarenos are larger than life.
Semana Santa processions take place throughout Spain, all to commemorate the final days of Jesus’ life and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. The nazarenos are also known as penitentes (penitents), marching to atone for their sins.
Yet, despite the evident religious themes of sorrow and guilt, most of the processions (in Murcia at least) are lively social events that pack streets with multiple generations out to see and be seen, to soak in the nostalgia and to pass it on to the children.
The processions in Murcia have several features that distinguish them from other processions in Spain, including the rhythm of drum beats and the fact that all of the pasos (floats) are still carried by man power alone (in other parts of Spain, at least some muscle power has been replaced by wheels and a chassis).
Another highlight of the Murcia processions is the large number of floats made by Francisco Salzillo, a native of the city and one of the most famous sculptors of religious themes in the 18th century. The expressions on the faces of his sculptures are searing. It is impossible not to be impressed.
The pictures here are from the procession on the morning of Good Friday, one of the most popular processions for families. This procession is often referred to simply as “los Salzillos,” for it contains some of the artist’s most famous works, such as The Fall above and the Last Supper below, which weighs a whopping 1,301 kg (over 2,800 pounds)! Those who carry the floats (currently all men) are known as estantes, which in other contexts, fittingly, means “shelf.”
The Last Supper is carried by 28 estantes (who must shoulder roughly 100 pounds a piece) along a route that lasts about five hours. They of course rest from time to time, propping the float on special staffs, and each float has extra estantes who rotate in and out of carrying duty. Nevertheless, the route is exhausting. Talk about penance! The same men carry the same floats year after year, in many cases like their fathers and grandfathers before them.
From our front row seats we could see the fine details of Salzillo’s sculptures as well as the excruciating looks on the faces of the float bearers, adding to the emotion of the event.
From a child’s point of view, however, the most appealing distinguishing feature of the Easter processions in Murcia is candy. Murcia is the only place in Spain where the nazarenos hand out copious (some say excessive) amounts of candy to onlookers, particularly to children.
Several theories exist as to the origins of the centuries-old tradition of candy in the processions in Murcia. One is that these offerings started as a gesture of repentance. Many nazarenos march with their faces covered, so the idea is that they could anonymously offer goods to anyone they had harmed. Today, however, they are most likely to give the treats hidden in their tunics to family, friends and children.
The other theory is particular to the estantes, the float bearers, who need fuel to complete their grueling task. Although food was generally prohibited in the processions, the Church allowed these men to eat, so they stuffed their tunics with provisions for themselves and their friends, including foods like fresh fava beans, hard-cooked eggs and monas de pascua, traditional Easter pastries I wrote about several years back. All of these foods are still popular with nazarenos today.
This was Mateo’s third year attending a Semana Santa procession but his first year actually eating the treats. Needless to say, he loved it. In his mind, nazareno equals drums and candy.
Which of my Easter traditions will I share with Mateo? The Easter Bunny has yet to make it to our house, and I’m not sure if he will as long as we are living in Spain. It’s not as though Mateo needs more candy.
And little by little, my own traditions are evolving. Now that I have lived in Murcia for over seven years, it just isn’t Easter to me without at least one Semana Santa procession, as long as it includes a good dose of sugar, of course.