A look at Spring Break and traditional Easter celebrations on the Canary Islands in Spain.
By Linda Wainwright
As dusk begins to fall, the only sounds along the crowded, but strangely silent, streets are the clanging of chains and the sombre thump of a regular drumbeat. This is not the Eastertide in Tenerife that the thousands of tourists, who flock here for respite from northern winters, see, but it is hugely important to Canarians, whose traditions and customs are so closely tied to religion.
Those chains are tied around the ankles of some of the penitents taking part in La Laguna’s Good Friday procession. There are other processions, but this is the big one. Just minutes before, the atmosphere had been quite different; the town was buzzing. Groups in those intimidating Ku Klux Klan-style robes stood around chatting and smoking outside the church. Children ran around, begging parents to buy them candy from the kiosks dotted around, and people greeted each other like long-lost friends, in the Spanish way.
Now the penitents trudge heavily along, swaying from side to rhythmic side, only their eyes visible through the two holes cut into those conical hoods, looking very different from their family men alter egos, who’d been hanging about until just a few minutes before. I’m not sure how I will feel about this event. TV coverage I’ve seen of equivalent ceremonies in Sevilla have been intimidating to say the least, and I am prone to giggle when faced with the over-serious.
I am even unsure about taking photos. Although I’m far from religious, I don’t want to disrespect the faith of others. Fears are unfounded, however, cameras are everywhere, although the crowd is silent. More and more groups pass, those wearing ankle chains, clad in simple monk-like habits and barefoot. The only sound from the white-gloved band is that drumbeat, trumpets and trombones are tucked silently under arms. Now and then, a tableau, representing a part of the Easter story, is shouldered past by men from local congregations – not an easy task on these old, narrow thoroughfares.
When it reaches its destination at the church at the other side of town, there will be hardly room to breath as participants and congregation crowd in for mass.
This procession contrasts with the happy and less crowded celebrations of Palm Sunday. Children had featured in that parade, dressed in those simple, blue and white robes and Arab headdresses we associate with Christmas nativity plays. In fact, the whole day had reminded me of a Sunday School outing. People in their Sunday best sauntered the sunny streets, carrying elaborate decorations woven from dried palm leaves, and the shops of La Laguna’s World Heritage Site center displayed small figurines of the penitents dressed in red or purple or white robes. The pastry shops even had chocolate and biscuit versions.
On Good Friday I resist the temptation to giggle. I am fascinated, but not awed, and I stuff my face with the traditional ‘torrija’ (“eggy” bread like French toast) eaten in Spain at Easter in a busy bar. In three days, the sombre witness of Good Friday over, Easter Sunday will bring out more Sunday strollers, and the happy parades celebrating the Resurrection.
I have a confession to make; Easter is my least-favorite time of year here. Good Friday is the busiest single day of the year at South Tenerife’s Reina Sofia Airport. For me, it’s essential to get away from the crowded beaches. Believe me, I love those beaches, but Semana Santa (Holy Week) is just too much for me. I much prefer to go in search of island traditions, like the passion play in Adeje, which I wrote about last year, or the processions in La Laguna. The drama of Easter weekend seems to bring out the sense of community I admire in these small, island towns and villages.
Last year I also discovered a tradition almost on my doorstep, in the small town of Guia de Isora, on the hillside overlooking the island’s west coast. There, local artists create displays depicting aspects of the Easter story, using flowers, plants and branches. The streets, on which this floral art is displayed, in the area around the church, are closed to traffic. So visitors can wander peacefully to admire, meditate on or even by inspired by the creations.
I’d picked up on information about the exhibition from the Internet, and arranged to meet friends there around lunchtime. We had no idea about the scheduling of events or services, only that the pieces of art would be in place from Maundy Thursday. As it happened, we’d chosen the quiet hours, before the church doors opened or the local population poured out to take part in the ceremonies, and we had the streets almost to ourselves. Even the bar in which we ate afterwards was quiet, still waiting for the weekend rush to begin.
This, for me, was a neat contrast to the bustling resorts. Despite my lack of conventional religious beliefs, I enjoy and admire the Easter processions and customs here far more than being on the beach at this time of year!
Linda likes to say that she is “re-inventing herself for her third age” these days. She transplanted to the Canary Islands more than 20 years ago. Now with kids grown up, leaving behind the 9 to 5, she studies writing and photography and is beginning to scratch a living from them, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. She blogs at www.islandmomma.wordpress.com