My Spanish friends have expressed similar bemusement at our saccharine traditions. What on earth do decorated eggs, a generous rabbit and flowery hats have to do with the Passion? Probably nothing really, which may be why I like them so much.
This morning, I received some incredibly exciting post: 12 small milk chocolate eggs and 5 chocolate rabbits. Of course it’s always wonderful to be sent chocolate, but this parcel was made more special by the fact that I am living in Japan this year; Japanese food is great, but there’s something about the chocolate that just doesn’t quite work for me. The parcel also reminded me that Easter is coming up this weekend –I really haven’t seen anything to remind me about it here– and gave me the theme for my English lessons this week. What I found surprising was how little Japanese people seem to know about Easter. Considering how many students told me that Christmas (but not as you know it) is their favourite holiday, I expected them to have their own version of Easter too; most of my Japanese friends cannot resist seasonal food and cute animals. I had a lot of explaining to do, and the whiteboard was soon covered in a startling array of new vocabulary from “bunny” and “bonnet” to “crown of thorns” and “crucify”. There really is nothing like telling people about your own traditions to make you realise how unquestioningly you follow them, and how strange they really are.
I had the opposite experience in Spain. I was so caught up in the intense emotion of the Spanish celebrations, and the strangeness of them, that I stopped thinking about eggs and bunny rabbits at all. The first time I saw a Spanish Easter procession was in Astorga, on a naïve mid-morning trip to the panadería for a lazy late breakfast. I was fascinated, confused, and most of all hungry; I couldn’t get past to buy my cruasán. There is nothing in the imagery of the Church of England that prepares you for the rows and rows of anonymous penitents in long velvet robes and tall pointy hats, the blast of the trumpets and the huge, lavish baroque images of pain and suffering. And other than the commandment to avoid public transport on Easter Sunday at all costs, nothing from my experience in the UK gave me any reason to expect town centres to come to a standstill. By the following year, I must have forgotten this brief brush with Spanish Easter because I, again naively, booked a trip to visit a friend in Andalucía in Easter Week.
“There is nothing in the imagery of the Church of England that prepares you for the rows and rows of anonymous penitents in long velvet robes and tall pointy hats, the blast of the trumpets and the huge, lavish baroque images of pain and suffering”.
I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but in Cordoba we ended up staying in a hotel overlooking the procession route. Maybe everyone else had realised how loud it would be. We spent a pleasant couple of days seeing the sights before going home to watch the floats go past from our window, with a glass of wine and some olives. (This was actually a lot less elegant than it sounds, since it was a very cheap hotel, and we didn’t have any glasses or a bottle opener. It may actually have been a carton of sangria and some crisps. We were poor students.) On one evening, we went out to see the floats from close-up, and found ourselves pressed against the walls to make way for a huge baroque image to carry out a many-point turn into a street with only inches to spare on either side. At the same time, we could barely hear ourselves think over trumpets blaring solemn tunes from ahead and different ones from behind. So we thought we had got to grips with Semana Santa by the time we got to Seville.
We hadn’t. On our first day in Seville, it was almost impossible to get around. The streets were paralysed by processions weaving back and forth and crowds of people jostling for a good spot so we gave up on sightseeing and joined in again. The next day, all of the aguas mil –Spanish April showers– decided to rain down at once, even coming in through the gaps of our hostel’s roof. The city was completely transformed: the streets were deserted, and the bars filled with weeping women in their lace mantillas and the float-carriers staring glumly into their large glasses of wine. The religious images are far too valuable to be taken out in the rain, and when a procession is cancelled it has to wait until the following year. That year’s painstaking preparations were all in vain. But still, from my British point of view it is hard to comprehend such an outpouring of emotion at an event being rained off. This is partly because it happens to us all the time, and partly because if we really want to do things then we just do them anyway. (I’ve been to a lot of soggy barbecues, but I do understand that this is rather different from taking a priceless religious icon out into torrential rain.)
I was intrigued by the differences between these supposedly equivalent festivals. The following Easter, when I was living in Viveiro, Galicia, I asked a lot of questions about who participates in the processions and how people prepare for them. Some people told me they didn’t know: they weren’t religious and weren’t really interested in Easter. For the others it seemed to be such an ingrained tradition, such a key moment of the year, that the answers to my questions were to self-evident to be worth articulating. So I didn’t get a lot of answers but what I did get was an invitation to join one of the processions. And so it was that on Maundy Thursday I found myself in the Capela da Misericordia, being helped into a long, black robe and a pointy velvet hood almost as tall as I was. The chapel was full of restless penitents of all ages handing out candles, adjusting robe lengths and looking for matching pairs of gloves. I soon learnt to keep an eye out for the smaller ones; a harmless child gazing up at the ceiling becomes a liability when he is wearing a hat capable of taking your eyes out. Although the procession itself was called off –rain again– this was the pinnacle of my Spanish Easter experiences. I’m not religious, but it felt great to be part of a group of people who all share the same feelings about the same goal, even if the feeling is disappointment. I found myself swept up in the emotion, and I was sincerely praying for the rain to stop along with everyone else. It must be electrifying if the procession actually takes place.
“I find it hard to believe that Easter and Semana Santa are even commemorating the same thing. I’m not alone. My Spanish friends have expressed similar bemusement at our saccharine traditions”.
Despite the community feeling of the procession, and the kindness of the cofradía for inviting me to join them, the Spanish Easter processions are still, ultimately, a glum event. There’s nothing wrong with that –it’s all there in the Easter story. But with or without rain, such gloomy, and passionate, experiences of Easter simply do do not compare with the Easter traditions I am familiar with. I find it hard to believe that Easter and Semana Santa are even commemorating the same thing. I’m not alone. My Spanish friends have expressed similar bemusement at our saccharine traditions. What on earth do decorated eggs, a generous rabbit and flowery hats have to do with the Passion? Probably nothing really, which may be why I like them so much. And my family traditions probably seem even stranger. We have an Easter tree, which is the plant in the kitchen bedecked with colourful eggs, and a plastic promotional chicken from many years ago also makes an appearance every year. This chicken opens its mouth to eat chocolate eggs and then lays them again. Easter wouldn’t be the same without it. For me, Easter is absolutely about chocolate, rabbits and flowers, a lazy lunch with the sunshine (hopefully) streaming in and an afternoon walk with my family. (Of course, many people will go to church too. And I haven’t forgotten to explain the religious side of Easter to my students.) It is certainly possible to connect British traditions to religion –I was taught in school that eggs represent new life, and so symbolise the resurrection– but it’s also hard to deny that Easter in Britain still revels unashamedly in its Pagan roots.
Whether Easter for you is a solemn religious occasion, or a frivolous celebration of spring, or perhaps a combination of the two, my investigation over the years has at least revealed two similarities between Easter in Spain and in Britain. Firstly, Ben Hur will definitely be on television (and you should definitely spend a whole day in your pyjamas watching it). Secondly, spring has finally come, and so in both countries we will optimistically plan our celebrations around outdoor events. Spring came a little earlier here in Japan, and has already been celebrated in a flurry of cherry blossom and sake (and yes, rain). There is no Easter Bunny in sight, and no processions of penitents either. So this year I will be marking Easter Sunday by eating the contents of this morning’s parcel whilst memorising some Japanese characters, and hopefully I’ll have some time to watch a bit of Charlton Heston too.