Monday, 25 April 2011
In America, where I come from, Easter is an odd sort of Spring festival, wherein some of us get chocolate rabbits and colored eggs in baskets full of fake hay. Others of us dress up in new clothes and go to church (how dreadfully I look back over that Easter when I taught Sunday School at College Hill Presbyterian Church... I handled the fourth-graders, seven of them, dressed in fabulous finery and tripped-out on marshmallow chicks and chocolate to the point of nausea, vomiting, and uncontrolled screeching.) Still other Americans do Passover instead. Or nothing special.
But here in Castilla y Leon, Easter is an entire week long -- two weeks, really. Sahagún, our market town 9 kilometers west, has a fine 500-year tradition of Holy Week worship, concerts, parades and pasos. So I decided to indulge.
Pasos are larger-than-life statues of Jesus, Mary, apostles, Roman soldiers, leering Jews, and other characters (and even animals) that are arrayed to portray scenes from the last day´s of Jesus´ earthly life. The Confraternity of Jesus the Nazarene, a sort of men´s prayer group - social club reaching back five centuries, keeps a collection of ten fine hand-carved antique pasos in a chapel-turned-paso-museum in Sahagún. These are mounted on heavy floats and carried by volunteers through the streets at particular moments of Holy Week, part of religious services that commemorate the Passion story. Drum-and-brass bands follow along, playing flashy and dolorous tunes that sound, to me, like bullfight music.
Carrying a paso is supposed to be a sacrifice, a heavy penance for the year´s sins. Confraternity members vie for a turn under their favorite tableau. They dress in matching purple gowns, and sometimes hide their identities under spooky pointy hoods. (So spooky, indeed, that the Ku Klux Klan later adapted the look, for more evil purposes.) All this is well-known to Spain-watchers everywhere -- colorful confraternities and pasos and heavy music are standard Holy Week pageantry from Seville to Santiago.
But kicking off every year´s Easter events is an oddment that this year I caught. It may kinda sum-up a lot of Easter, in its way: the Subasta de Pasos: the float auction.
Two Sundays before Easter, inside the confraternity chapel, with the pasos arrayed behind them and the sun streaking down through the incense smoke, Officials of the Confraternity (with Leandro the Plumber prominent among them) sat behind a purple-draped table. Before them was an iron handbell and a wide copper offering plate. And to each side stood a stout man in his best Sunday suit, grasping an antique staff topped with a tin Sacred Heart. The crowd filled the ten pews provided, and standing-room crowd spilled over the tiles and out into the plaza.
I had a camera and a notebook, and must still have that Working Press vibe. People stepped aside and handed me forward for a better look. The veterinarian who saved Murphy´s seventh life last summer took my elbow and led me to a front-row seat, right next to a woman with a hand-drawn score-sheet. She was official, but friendly. I settled in for the duration.
First up: Paso of the Trumpet.
Not a popular choice. Last year a group of schoolboys carried it, for only 15 Euro. The year before it went for 30. At first, nobody bid anything. The crowd grumbled.
The scowling Jefe rang the bell and called the place to order. And one of the stout men cleared his throat and sang out in cadenced, formal Castellano: "Is there a devout brother to give an offering to carry this holy image?"
The devout brothers sang out: this year´s crop of local Army recruits won it after two bids. It went for 30. Slow start. Things did not improve with the Bombo or the Banderas, two other minor images. The jefes exchanged glances. The auction is a major fund-raiser for the confraternity. Times are hard in rural Spain. But the Devout Brothers were just warming up.
Christina, the scorekeeper beside me, whispered explanations. A particular family or drinking club or prayer group or parish might have a particular devotion to one or another image, she said. They try to "win" their paso at the auction, then gather up enough strong shoulders to carry it through its appearances in the next week´s pageant. It´s hard work, she said, but a big honor. It is expensive, but somehow it is worth it. After Easter they have to bring them back.
As the larger and heavier pasos came up for bid, el paso del Cruz Grande went for 600, 650, 811, then 1,150 Euro. Leandro smiled. In 2010, it fetched only 400. In 2009, a measly 275. The Santo Christo de los Entierros saw similar success, and the Virgin of Solitude went for 1,650 Euros to a lady in Prada.
"This being the third call of 1,650 Euro, for La Virgen de la Soledad..." the second stout man sang out. His voice was going hoarse now. No more bidders. He banged his staff on the floor. "Buen aprovechadla!" he called out. "Enjoy it in good health!"
Ten pasos, ten nice bids. The auction ended with several groups of young men easing the lighter and (perhaps) less-valued pasos carefully through the low door of the shuttered San Lorenzo church next door -- the Mudejar landmark is falling down, and there´s no money to do more than shore it up.
Once the saints made daylight, the mozos cantered off with them on their shoulders to their club headquarters or hideouts. "They will practice with them, how to walk with them on their shoulders, how to make them bow, how to set them down gently," a bystander shouted to me. (We foreigners always understand better when Spanish is delivered at 80 or more decibels.) "It´s how they learn. It´s how I learned. And this year I´m helping with three pasos!"
I would love to carry a paso down the street during Holy Week in Spain.
If I had a big group of Devout Brothers, I might pony up 30 Euros, myself. Maybe get together an international immigrant group and bid for the right to carry Las Banderas. It might be shocking or unacceptable to some people, but we are sinners, too -- some of us might even be Christian! It could be done. If we could learn the steps, and rustle up some matching robes, and figure out when to be where... (Fiesta times and places are never posted. Somehow Spaniards know when to show up. We are always an hour early.)
And throughout this Holy Week, that is what was done. As it´s been done here for generations. Very Spanish, if not very Catholic. It made me think about Holy Week, and sacrifice, and Easter, and the entire Judeo-Christian economy of redemption and salvation and ongoing access to God.
Maybe some of the College Hill Presbyterians would say the Confraternity of Jesus the Nazarene is populated with Pharisees and money-changers, the kind of people an enraged Jesus kicked out of the temple in Jerusalem. They might find an annual devotion to a particular wooden image to be idolotrous -- relying on a carved bit of wood to endow the carrier with good luck or better access to the Almighty. (Jesus is supposed to be the sole conduit for that, you know.)
But maybe it is just culture. They auction-off pasos, and carry them around for a week, because they always have done. Because it is fun, because they want to, because it binds them together as a community. Because they have a perfect right to do it, strange as it might seem to outsiders.
As strange as bunnies and chocolate crosses, plastic grass, and not a single day off work for Easter.