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ZAMORA, Spain: Wailing bugles, rhythmic drumbeats and eerie religious chants can once again be heard across Spain this year as the country’s massively popular religious Easter processions return after a two-year hiatus due to of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During Holy Week, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to once again take to the streets of cities and towns across the country daily to watch parades that are a major tourist attraction, some of which are nationally televised.
Ceremonies see brotherhoods of “nazarenos”, or penitents, with tall conical hats, monk’s robes and face hoods escorting beautifully decorated floats with carvings of Jesus and the Virgin, many of which have a backdrop of streets and of ancient architecture.
Easter has always been a holy holiday for Spaniards and millions of people hit the road, many just to see the processions. But COVID-19 has stopped all that.
The pandemic hit in early 2020 and Spain was in total lockdown by Easter. In 2021, some measures were lifted but travel between Spanish regions was severely restricted and public gatherings banned.
Cristina Luisa Ensegundo, 29, takes part in her first Holy Week procession in the western city of Zamora. She does so in memory of her grandmother, María Carmen, who died of the coronavirus. María Carmen had bought herself a veil and a hair comb, which participants use to adorn elegant black dresses, but, her granddaughter said, she was never able to participate in the procession.
“When we were sorting through her things, I saw the hair comb and the veil and I knew I had to join the procession,” Ensegundo said of the procession of the Brotherhood of the Virgin of Hope in which she participated on Thursday.
“When she died, I said it might be a tribute or a way to remember her. As she had always loved this procession, I signed up,” she said. “She is always with us, but it will make the day special.”
Nearly all pandemic restrictions are being phased out, but authorities are urging the use of masks when needed at countless gatherings, such as processions.
While some women like Ensegundo attend, men make up the majority of participants. Processions vary widely but almost all include hooded nazarenos. Their strange conical hats are said to date back to the Spanish Inquisition when prisoners were forced to wear them. Covered faces helped sinners hide their identity.
The celebrations date back to when Spain was a stronghold of Roman Catholicism, but nowadays nazarenos come from all walks of life, many with no religious inclination.
For Juan Carlos Alonso, of the Brotherhood Jesus of the Way of the Cross, “the sensations today are special”, adding that “Zamora lives all year round for Holy Week”.
“For those who live Holy Week to the fullest, it was two years of orphanage,” Alonso said. He said that apart from the religious and cultural aspects, the processions have great sentimental significance, being “a tradition passed down from parents to children”.
Zamora processions date back to the 13th century. Besides the impressive artistic quality of the floats and sculptures, they stand out for their austerity, solemnity and captivating Gregorian music.
In the northern region of La Rioja, many participants wear chains around their ankles and flog themselves. In nearby Aragon, nazarenos draw their blood by beating bass drums for hours.
Among the most fervent processions is Seville’s La Macarena, which has 3,600 penitents and attracts thousands of passers-by.
Many tanks are extremely heavy and the Macarena must be carried by 36 “costaleros” – normally men who wear corsets to avoid injury. Some processions proceed in silence interrupted only by a flamenco-style lament, or “saeta.” Others have loud marching bands playing festive “paso doble” dance tunes.
“The procession is of vital importance”, for the inhabitants of Seville, declared José Antonio Fernández Cabrero, leader of the brotherhood of the Macarena. He described the past two years as “an existential void”.