The Semana Santa (Easter Week or Holy Week) celebrations in Spain can be quite bewildering for north European expats and visitors, but this is no reason to avoid them. After all, from a Spanish point of view the way in which Easter is celebrated by the majority of the UK (with the exception, of course, of practising Catholics) has an equally incomprehensible fixation on chocolate eggs and bunnies.
In Spain, on the other hand, Semana Santa is a time of spectacle, faith, suffering, sacrifice, penitence, art, beauty, generations-old loyalty, endurance, reaffirmation of local identity, community spirit, love, joy, deliverance and, above all, passion: the passion of preserving age-old traditions and the Passion (with a capital P) of the last days of the life of Jesus Christ. These elements have become stronger and stronger with the passing of the centuries, and while the celebrations in each village, town and city are different they all reflect the local identities which have been forged over time within the framework of the Passion.
It is generally fair to say that the Semana Santa processions are more important in central and southern Spain than in the north, perhaps because of the unforgiving climate and relative historical poverty and hardship which the locals have endured for centuries, and a week of re-enacting those hardships culminates in the joy of Resurrection Sunday. While this may mean little to visitors from abroad, it is no reason for them not to appreciate the commitment of the Spanish – including the Murcianos – to perpetuating the celebrations which have taken shape over the ages.
Of 10 local fiestas to have been awarded International Tourist Interest status in the Region of Murcia, 4 are the Semana Santa celebrations in Jumilla, Lorca, Cartagena and the city of Murcia, and various others are classified as being of National Tourist Interest. All of the local Semana Santa programs have their own traditions and unique ways of celebrating Easter, but at the same time the essence of the week remains the last days of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and his resurrection.
In the capital city of Murcia the processions are large-scale affairs, attended by huge crowds who divide their attention between the historic sculptures by Francisco Salzillo being paraded through the old centre, the lively atmosphere in the bars and restaurants along the route and the unusual sight of statues being lowered through the window of a church because they are too big to fit through the door, or witnessing the ass of red as they 4,000 “Coloraos” cross the Puente Vieja on Wednesday evening.
In Lorca, meanwhile, the razzmatazz and exquisitely embroidered cloaks are at times more reminiscent of a grand circus-style show than of a deeply emotional religious occasion. Roman chariots race through the streets as the crowds applaud feats of daring horsemanship, and the local population is divided between their loyalties to the “Blues” and the “Whites” as the two groups compete to put on the most spectacular show.
At the other end of the scale is the military precision of the solemn parades in Cartagena, where the processions begin in the very early hours of Viernes de Dolores, before any others in the whole of Spain, while the penitents in Jumilla continue a tradition of Easter processions which is among the earliest to be recorded in the country, dating back at least as far as 1411, and the recent award of International Tourist Interest status reflects the rich artistic heritage, colour, devotion and enthusiasm. which have inspired the locals for over six centuries.