(This is an updated version of David Holzer’s blog post for Easter 2017)
For many Spanish people, Semana Santa – Holy Week – is a religious event second only to Christmas and the arrival of the Three Kings on 6 January. In Mallorca, Semana Santa runs from 23 March to 1 April and marks the last week of Lent.
I’d say Semana Santa is the most purely religious of all the Spanish festivals. And, to a Northern European sensibility like mine, it feels far more like an outpouring of dark, tragic emotions than a time of celebration. The pointy hood processions that take place at Easter in Mallorca, but especially in Palma, have a lot to do with this.
Semana Santa is when Catholics acknowledge the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save humanity from itself. It’s when they recognise what they’ve done wrong throughout the year, confess and repent. Churches stay open later to cater for extra-long confessions.
It’s also a time of community pride, expressed in the pasos, the enormous glass-sided palls or floats that show sculpted gospel scenes from the Passion of Christ and the Sorrow of Mary. Each paso belongs to a particular brotherhood or fraternity and it’s an honour to be a pall-bearer or costalero.
The fraternities may have existed since the Middle Ages or the Baroque period – which explains why the pasos are often so splendid, albeit in a bloody kind of way. Fortunately, in Mallorca, the only blood you’re likely to see is painted. On mainland Spain, even today, some fanatics beat themselves until they bleed. Not something you want to see when you’re eating your ice-cream.
It’s the pointed hoods that make the Semana Santa processions somewhat unnerving. The first time I saw a crowd of hooded fraternity members coming towards me down the Ramblas in Palma I was ready to turn and run.
The hooded robe is called a nazareno. Although the name is derived, as you’ve probably guessed, from the people of Nazareth, its origins are medieval. Wearing a hood was a way for penitents who wanted to publicly prove they’d repented to still keep their identity secret. Any resemblance to the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan is apparently purely coincidental, although I find that very hard to believe.
I’d suggest you see at least one Semana Santa procession. Despite the drumming, the bottles of beer being swigged by the brawny costaleros wearing Nike running shoes, they’re not fun but they are moving. It seems to me that anyone who calls themselves Christian should remember that Christ died for humanities’ sins and repent of their peccadillos at this time of year.
Me, I take a pagan view of Easter in Mallorca.
According to the great anthropologist James George Frazer, a major influence on Robert Graves, ‘When we reflect on how often the Church has skilfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis…celebrated in Syria at the same season.’
Adonis was connected to the even more ancient Egyptian Osiris and Phrygian Attis, deities of rebirth and regeneration.
It makes sense to me that Easter celebrations are really about the sun being born again, not the son. Days start to become longer than nights. Life begins again. New beginnings also mean repentance and forgiveness. But mostly they’re cause for celebration.
And there’s plenty to celebrate during Easter in Mallorca.
The Sunday after Easter, the beautifully named Angel Sunday, was traditionally a day when bread was given out to the poor. Today, Mallorquin families and groups of friends gather to feast outside on traditional delicacies that include monas de Pascua – Easter cakes – and panades stuffed with lamb. In Palma, the park around Bellver Castle is a popular spot. Outside of the city, people picnic in places like the mountains around Alaro, the Santuari de Lluc – a truly mystical place – or the beach.
Because one of the most wonderful things about Easter in Mallorca is the weather’s usually good. Which is why I always head for the fantastic La Fira del Ram, the traditional funfair that appears on the outskirts of Palma and runs until 23 April. If, like me, you love fairs, there’s something joyous, pagan and life-affirming about wandering under a cloudless dark blue sky lit up with whirling neon, being deafened by thumping techno and screaming teenage girls as you inhale the heady scent of diesel oil, frying, and caramelising sugar.
If you want to experience the Easter processions in all their strange glory, I would head for Palma or perhaps Soller.
It’s easy to get to La Fira del Ram, the funfair on the outskirts of Palma, by car or by train from the central station in Plaza de España.
Whether you’re feeling devout or not, a trip to the extraordinary Santuari de Lluc, followed by a picnic, is a fine little adventure.