The ‘madruga’ experience: an Andaluz midnight Easter procession

By Alissa Greenberg

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This crying Maria presides over the 4 am ‘madruga’ processions in Linares

 

The first time I heard about the madruga processions in Semana Santa when a friend mentioned casually that if I thought Easter was intense here (and by “here” she meant Palencia, the small Castilian town in northern Spain where I was living), I should know that down south processions often went through the night; some even began at 3 am.  (Madrugar means to get up in the middle of the night in Spanish.)

“But why!?” I asked, puzzled.

“I think it must be the heat,” my friend said, in that way that suggests a person doesn’t actually know the answer to the question you’ve asked. “Sometimes in April it’s already very hot in Sevilla. They want to avoid the heat of the day.” And that was that: we wended our way through the cold, rainy Easter of 2012, and I didn’t think about late-night processions at all—until I arrived this year in Linares, the small town where I live in northern Andalucia (southern Spain.)

Semana Santa in southern Spain is more intense on a variety of levels. It occupies a special place in the collective consciousness, and as such it is on everyone’s lips even in the heat of September and the cold of January. From almost the moment of my arrival, people had been talking to me about the wonders of a Linarense Easter. They mentioned the centuries-old pasos; the special, electric atmosphere; the haunting power of the saetas, flamenco versus sung to the saints. And almost without exception they recommended the Nazareno, a madruga procession that begins at 3 am on Jueves Santo (Thursday night) and ends in a powerful town-wide blessing in the Plaza San Francisco.

The madruga is, indeed, a worthy and unique Semana Santa experience. These types of processions take place throughout Andalucia, but if you happen to find yourself in this corner of Jaen on Thursday or Easter week, here are some scenes you might see:

I.

At 2 AM, I’m roused by upbeat melodies drifting through my earplugs. I go to the window and see a group of at least 25 standing in the road by the plaza next to my house. They seem to be talking and hanging around with the band. I guess that maybe they’re warming up?

Twenty minutes later, it becomes clear that they were, indeed, warming up. The beat of the drums almost catapults me out of bed—I get to the window in time to see the band is marching away through the plaza. Outside, more people are walking back and forth than usually do except at the busiest time of the day (when the elementary schools down the street let out.)

 

II.

After a basically sleepless night (theirs was not the only band that passed my window), I drag myself out of bed toward the plaza. There, I come face to face with a gorgeous, flower-lined Maria paso, fronted with at least 40 three-foot-tall candles, all lit and emerging from a cofradia (brotherhood house.) She’s being lifted out on the street. I stop short. She’s so beautiful. I watch them maneuver Maria out of the. In the process of being lifted onto the costaleros’ shoulders, she lists dangerously to one side. I gasp along with everyone else in the crowd. (Costaleros are penitants who are charged with carrying the enormous, heavy pasos on their backs or shoulders for hours at a time.)

 

III.

It’s 3:30 am, and Plaza San Francisco is already crowded and filling fast. I would guess there are more than a thousand people here. I can see a second Jesus paso at the far end. They seem to be maneuvering him into position. A few drops of rain start to fall from the cloudy sky as we wait. Umbrellas sprout up immediately, and the crowd around me bursts into complaints. “Ey, paraguas!” they yell. “Put down the umbrella!” The woman next to me has an especially strong opinion on this. When a single umbrella remains up, blocking our view, she yells. “Que fuerte! Pero que fuerte! Poca verguenza!” What little shame you have!

 

IV.

The sky is holding out. The lone umbrella goes down, and we hear the sound of trumpets; a few minutes later the trumpets sound again, and all the lights go out. Waves of silence flood around the plaza, as much quiet as 2000 people can produce, before rolling back into whispers and noise. After some delay, the doors open. At first all I can see is candles, then branches attached to those candles, then an enormous paso—probably 25 feet long—filled with glass candelabras and Jesus of Nazareth (El Nazareno). The paso pauses; the whole crowd bursts into applause—maybe 1500 people at 4 am, telegraphing their joy.

 

V.

More trumpets, and I can hear people in the crowd yelling, although I can’t make out what they’re saying. Eventually, it becomes clear: someone will yell a name, and another group will yell “Viva!” (long live ____!) I deduce that it’s names of Cofradias, brotherhoods that are in charge of parading the saints. And then people are yelling “Viva el Nazareno!” and the whole crowd is yelling “Viva!” and cheering.

 

VI.

The yelling calms down and then– a single ringing note of a triangle silences the entire plaza. Then a few more notes ping out in the dark, still, breath-held plaza. A moment more, and clarinets and flutes join, then the whole brass band, and the crowd breaks into the largest cheer yet. As the music finishes, the cheering intensifies, and a light goes on, illuminating the front of the church. I think we’ve been blessed.

 

VII.

The Jesus paso starts to move again, with its accompanying band. The costaleros lift it, with many preparatory grunts and yells, and a final dramatic jump from knees to standing, with 60 kilos on their backs. I’ll never get used to that; I don’t think it will ever stop being impressive. Before they can move out of the plaza, trailing the penitents with their black pointed caps and silver staves, they stop—a woman is singing a saeta to the saint. In Linares, the costaleros are required to stop any time anyone wants to sing a saeta.

It’s a long song and extremely difficult. The woman’s voice is serpentine, undulating, threading in and out of the sounds of the crowd talking in undertone around me. At the most difficult parts, the crowd shouts “Ole!” like we’re at a concert instead of on the street. When she finishes, trailing off, there’s applause. The costaleros jump; the Jesus on the cross moves off around the corner. We watch the Nazareno move out as well, accompanied by another saeta, incredible impressive in its sheer weight and heft.

 

VIII.

At about 5 AM, the rain starts again, this time heavier and more insistent. I walk home, feeling truly touched. To see a community come together like this is something powerful. And to see such beauty and magic come to life in a place I think about as a kind of “home” is something extraordinary. Tonight, Jueves Santo, is a night full of “madrugas,” and the same kind of things are happening in Cordoba, in Sevilla, in Jerez, in Granada, on bigger scales—more pasos, more people, more processions.

But to see these places, where I go to the post office and to school,  transformed; to see the mundane the streets candle lit, the plaza filled with celebrants– it’s like seeing something ordinary and every day made sacred. Or maybe it was sacred all this time.

The moment of blessing as the Nazareno exits Iglesia San Francisco

The moment of blessing as the Nazareno exits Iglesia San Francisco

 

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