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Impressions and Experiences surrounding the Semana Santa:

Sunday, March 23, 3pm, ‘Domingo de Ramos’ in Seville, Spain;

Crowded streets, police controlling the flux of people, seats everywhere: on squares, streets and sidewalks - 12 hours a day, from 3 in the afternoon until 3 in the morning - all over Seville: The Semana Santa!

To find out more about the festival week of Easter, that  attracts hundreds of thousands of more or less religious people every year, we interviewed a local, well almost, the twenty-one year old Mathematics student, Andreas Matt of fabula:

"Mr. Matt, what can you tell us about the Semana Santa?"

"First of all I must say that I very much enjoy this lively coming together of the whole city. You can take strolls in the afternoon or late evening, mingling with all sorts of people: the old and young, children in carriages, punks, men in suits, street-kids, women from wealthy and more religious families wearing a specific black gown with their faces hidden behind see-through veils with their hair done up. Little kiosks everywhere selling refreshments: ‘Bocadillios’, filled sandwiches, sweets from cotton batton, to icecream and baloons to ‘Churros con Chocolate’, a special, very fatty, fried cake, that is dipped into hot chocolate; all this at almost no cost; groups of friends, families that reserve seats, chat, laugh and get drunk; it feels more like carneval than a religious gathering."

"And what happens next?"

"Let me first explain, that Seville has about sixty religious communes, varying in size and wealth - each with a special connection to a specific church or temple. These communes organize the religious parades, the ‘cofradias’ for the Semana Santa . A cofradia consists of 600 to 2500 so-called ‘nazarenos’, mostly male members of the commune, who would sell their soul to be able to participate. They dress up in Ku-Klux-Clan-like outfits. Only the colour that varies from group to group: most are clad in  black, but also red, dark blue, or white can be seen. The ‘penitrentes’, the regretters, march next to the nazarenos, carrying black wooden crosses on their backs. The size of these crosses may vary:
The commune of the ‘Los Gitanos’, the gypsies, for instance, a commune known to be more fanatic than others, handles crosses the size of ships masts.

The candle-spiked and gilded statues of Jesus Christ and of the Virgin Mary remain the real attraction. They are carried by up to 50 strong men, poised on wooden blocks that measure 3 by 5 by 2 meters. Confusingly these blocks are also referred to as 'pasos', just like the procession itself. Most cofradias carry two statues, each portraying a scene from their lives, others carry only one.

The statues on there boxes are accompanied by a marching band playing funeral music to a strong drumbeat and usually very loud trumpets. As if that wasn`t enough, a cloud of myrrh surrounds and blurs everything.

Between cofradias and according to the particular ‘paso’, additional groups and side processions such as a whole troop of Roman soldiers are featured. Entirely clad and armed with spears and shields who accompany the incredibly venerated defilé of the ‘Virgen de la Macarena’ and visit only particular monasteries.

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Programs containing the details as to where and when which procession passes each day are available everywhere weeks in advance. It has to be stressed that each cofradia has to follow the ‘Carrera Oficial’. This is the official route which goes through the Plaza del Duque, by the Campanile and through Calle Sierpes, the Plaza Francisco and along the Avidena de la Constitucion, finally passing by the Cathedral before returning to its own church. The ‘Carrera Oficial’ is totally inaccessible during ‘rush hour’, except for the fearless with a lot of time and patience at hand. Every possible empty space is filled by especially constructed galleries; seats can be reserved for up to two hundred USD (1997) for the whole week.

Many locals leave Seville during Semana Santa, because the total standstill for twelve hours a day in the center means a trip to the bakery will last a few hours instead of a few minutes."

"And what impression do the processions make and what makes them so special? Have you yourself seen many pasos?"

"You invariably and nearly always can see nazarenos running through the streets during this week, even when they aren´t with their paso, for they are not allowed to be seen without their disuise, even without their masks. This  means that thousands of them run from their homes to their communes church, from where they participate in procession, that can last up to thirteen hours and then return back home.
The worst day of all is Good Friday, viernes santo, on which thirteen pasos take place.
They begin Thursday around midnight and return on Saturday around three am. Among these thirteen all the most revered pasos can be found: 
The previously mentioned ‘Macarena’ and the famous ‘Esperanza de Triana’ - arch enemies on paso level - are on the move along with ‘Jesus del Gran Poder’ and ‘El Silencio’, the two of which are the basis for discussions among fanatics as to which one is carrying the more beautiful Virgin Mary . 

‘Pasos’, that do not have marching bands, are known as silent processions. This means that any talking, even whispering, is punished with angry looks, or by (not so silent) hushes and "pssssssts" from all directions. To see these pasos people assume their positions up to three hours in advance, reserving the best places to be able to see the whole cofradia pass by.

Leaving my nearby flat in the Alameda part of town, I walked to the ‘Plaza de Lorenzo’ in order to experience the paso ‘Gran Poder’ near the river on Thursday evening toward eleven. This is a silent paso that was said to be traditional and beautiful. The pasos' exit from and return to its church is always a great spectacle, accompanied by the Spanish anthem in the case of "loud" processions. I waited there until the church gates opened precisely at one o’clock. The itinerary must be strictly met, since they are precisly coordinated and delays are penalised with stiff fines. A paso that is delayed or trailing behind can block the whole town, since all pasos must follow the carrera oficial. 

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Standing sandwiched in the midst of the dense crowd, I now saw black nazarenos with long, lit candles marching two by two, with their arms crossed heading South with slow paces. They are accompanied by men, whose job it is to push back the crowd. Now and again some  other nazarenos pass, engulfing it all with huge clouds of myrrh. The change in the noise level was very impressive: first happy talking and laughing, a big ‘hushhhh’, and then
… near silence…

The cofradia paso del gran poer is made up of 2435 nazarenos, meaning that their passing lasts for more than half an hour. Half an hour of silence and tension while the nazarenos, awe-inspiring and almost dangerous in their black outfits and their huge candles. The atmosphere intensified even more when a statue of Jesus carrying the cross appeared. Then, when a man on a nearby balcony draped in dark red intoned a song with all his passion,  later accompanied by a woman, accompanying the wobbling Jesus and sending shivers down my spine. 

The combination of a long wait, squished by the astounded mass of people, the myrrh in the air with thess beautiful bursts of song - it all captures the participants and enthralls the bystanders.

The carriers of the heavy statues, up to one and a half tons each, are hidden inside these boxes and can’t see a thing, since the only opening - that serves as exit and entrance - is at the rear end. About every twenty-five meters they lay down the box for half a minute when carriers sometimes alternated. The load must be immense - from January nights onward I had seen carriers in training, running through the streets with bags of cement on their shoulders.

Two nazarenos with their caps hanging down behind guide the huge boxes. The music apparently plays an important role for the motion and rest of the procession. Another nazareno stands behind the box and when he taps on it three times with a cane, "hop" the box lifts off the ground and continues along the carera oficial. This nazareno is also responsible for keeping all the candles on the box lit. Small steps set the statues in motion, in some pasos the feet are dragged along the ground.

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An old man starts singing out of his bar, a young girl carries on. Everyone is free to sing along, many spontaneously commence a song full of enthusiasm. 

After another thirty minutes of nazarenos and cross carriers passing by, the Virgin Mary finally appears. She stands under a roof with beautifully crafted railings at her sides; flowers, gold and over a hundred burning candles accompanying her swaying figure. It is this swaying motion that makes these tall statues come to life as they wobble, no word seems more adequate,  through the old streets up to five meters up in the air.

After precisely ninety-five minutes the entire paso has passed. The crowd disperses instantly and heads on to the next paso. The programs are whisked out of pockets, insiders know which corner gives the best view. 

I tried walking home but got surprised by the macarena paso just outside my house: The whole Alameda Square, a giant square in the North of Seville right by flat  had been transformed into a sea of heads.
I am lucky, the marching band can already be heard, where one has to normally watch nazarenos pass by for up to an hour. It is said that the nearly three thousand nazarenos of the macarena paso are less traditional, leaving the church with their procession, then speeding home to take a nap at home, joining in later. It is further rumoured that nazarenos had been spotted drinking in bars!

The crowd applauded, excitedly screaming "guapa, bonita…", (cute, lovely) and tried to come close to the Virgin Mary only to touch her clothes or at least the golden box supporting her.

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Most nazarenos are barefoot, and some wear socks. Even weeks after the Semana Santa many carriers find painfull lumps on there shoulders even though there necks were padded. During nearly every paso people are carried away having fainted. Ambulance and police are never far; the police mainly to catch pickpockets or apprehend smalltime black marketeers.

The energy and endurance of the people during the whole spectacle are impressive, as is the week long reminders of the life of Jesus and his mother Mary."

"Did you have any bad experiences, witness fights or riots for example?"

"No, never saw any fights, but I did have to learn how to move in such huge crowds and to go with the flow. The effects on the general mood are very intensive: From tears and happy or angry faces, compliments, amazement or rudeness and shoving.
Often, you just have to learn to wait: "Patience, you will yet find a way to pass!" I once foolishly got caught between two seperate cofradias with my bicylce. Trapped, I had to fight my way back and make a huge detour, reaching my destination two hours late. 

In any case, the Semana Santa remains a unique and worth-while festivity with very beautiful statues  and loads of atmosphere." 

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