Posted by: donnatallman | March 29, 2012

Semana Santa (Holy Week)

Photo by Petr Kratochvil

 Sevilla, Spain – 1967

The darkness of midnight conceals me like a widow’s veil as I wait in the streets of Sevilla with hundreds of Spanish Catholics. Carried along by a massed huddle all dressed in black, I see only the backs and waists of those directly in front of me. Sandi and I get separated and I quickly feel smothered by the crowd. No one speaks.

The huddle suddenly shuffles forward again in quiet expectation. Minutes pass. Shuffle again. A mysterious glow from a distant building draws the huddle onward.

Shuffle. Shuffle. Shuffle.

Sandi and Randy anxiously crane their necks to catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the darkness. A slow drum-roll pulses in the distance. Suddenly, it is joined by the haunting melody of a distant flute that pierces the silence of the night.

Without warning, the bodies come to one immediate, unified halt. Something draws near. Silence. No one moves. I stretch my own neck to see, and stand on my tiptoes – but it doesn’t help. I watch. I wait. I linger in expectation with those around me. For what I don’t know, but I have been assured that its significance is worth enduring this eerie, hair-raising midnight pilgrimage.

Finally, I hear a thump and a jingle, a thump and a jingle as pointed hoods slowly approach along the avenue.

Thump and jingle. Thump and jingle.

An odd group of men trudges silently before my mesmerized eyes. They each carry a candle that distorts and elongates their facesmaking them look demonic. I am in one moment both terrified by their creepy appearance while intrigued by the eerie shadows their pointed hoods cast along Sevilla’s old brick buildings.

Why do they wear such funny shaped hats? Their ankles are shackled with balls and chains, and their feet are bleeding. Why are they doing this? How come I can’t see their eyes? I need to see their eyes. Why is no one saying anything to stop this? Jesus could stop this. Where is Jesus? Where is my rescue?

For a moment I become self-conscious and wonder if I am in any danger for just being here. I reach out searching for my sister’s hand, but can’t find her.

The thump and jingle group eventually passes into the night only to be followed by another company of men. These men wear no hoods. They don’t wear shirts or shoes either. They wear no ball and chain as the pointy hoods had, but instead, carry whips with which they beat themselves periodically as they walk.

Thwaaaat. Thwaaaat. Thwaaaat.

The sacred hush that has tenuously hovered over the street is pierced by the rumbling moans of the men before me and the stifled gasps of the crowd around me. Like the cascading wax of the Semana Santa candles, blood slowly drips down the men’s backs congealing into rivers of agony. Still no one protests. People watch. I watch, but why?

There is no time to wonder – light emanating from a large swaying float radiates across the crowd stirring spontaneous emotion that rises to the fevered pitch of open weeping. All who have waited so long to see her are not disappointed. The float approaches us and I can see a large, beautifully sculptured icon of the Virgin Mary. She is illuminated by hundreds of candles casting a warm glow on Mary’s face and over the crowd. Light from the jewels that comprise her gown reflects through the tears of those who stand by in adoration. My own attention is drawn, however, to the diamond teardrops on her cheek. She weeps for the son who was killed on Good Friday.

She is the “Virgin of Hope,” also called La Macarena. The patron saint of matadors, this life-sized Virgin Mary icon is adored and beloved by the people of Andalusia. While La Macarena is truly breathtaking, few are aware of the agony beneath her. Carried on the backs of dozens of men, La Macarena makes her annual pilgrimage through the streets of Sevilla at a high cost to those hidden below. Periodically, one of the men runs out from under the heavy float gasping for air and searching for water. Some of the floats can weigh more than 2,000 pounds, so the men have to be strong. It is no sacrifice for them to shoulder the weight of their precious Madonna; it is the opportunity of a lifetime.

This midnight vigil feels otherworldly, even supernatural; something very different than anything I’ve experienced during my simple Protestant military Chapel attendance. I feel captured by something mystical. The smell of candle wax wafting through the air soon gives way to the pungent aroma of incense waved back and forth by a priest carrying a large smoking ball. I feel dizzy and reach out to grab Sandi’s hand so I don’t fall. The ground growls beneath my feet as another contingent of men passes by dragging iron balls and chains across the cobblestone.

Photo by Jiri Hodan

Periodically, one lone person sings into the darkness from a balcony I can’t see, and I feelcompletely disoriented and afraid. Even the birds of Sevilla have appeared just beyond the candle glow to add another layer of creepiness to this whole scene. With every beat of a drum, the birds squawk and flap themselves into a frenzy.

They shriek.

People nearby cry, some sob, and others wail. It’s unnerving. The Spanish aren’t bothered by their public displays of emotion, no matter how deep, how shrill, or how loud; in fact it seems to bring them great comfort.

I know they love their Macarena, but I don’t get any of this. What does it mean? Dad says this is the way Spanish celebrate Semana Santa, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. But it doesn’t feel like a celebration to me. We celebrate Easter with new clothes, egg hunts, candy baskets, and bunny rabbits.

This feels much more like a funeral, like somebody died.

Did God just die?

© Copyright, 2012 by Donna Tallman.




  1. I remember this story you told me years ago. I will pass this on to my folks. They will enjoy it!

  2. Oh, do pass it along to your folks – with my hello to them!

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