Palm Sunday. Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey while a festive populace laid palms down at his feet. In many Spanish cities a "procesión" is held commemorating this joyous day, with a figure of Jesus on a donkey being carried through the city on the shoulders of the faithful, to the sound of marching bands and the murmur (for Spaniards can rarely ever be quiet!) of the people walking either ahead, behind or watching from the sides. Most carry white palms as a symbol of participation in the ritual, some simple tall leaves from palm trees, others more elaborately twisted or woven together into a lovely design or even a "sculpture" of sorts.
|Pope Benedict with palm from Elche|
With the excuse of a friend visiting from Mexico, my family and I went to witness this year's procession in Elche, a millenial city just 20km from Alicante, and famous for the "Huerto del Cura" also called the "Palmeral", a.k.a. Europe's biggest palm tree forest and a Unesco World Heritage Site. According to my mom (I don't have any other sources for this, but she's a walking encyclopedia!), Elche's is one of the most famous Palm Sunday processions in Spain, mainly due to this reverence for the city's palms and the fact that they are the only place that still prepares elaborate handmade white palms for the procession (one is even sent to the Pope every year! sample photo which was in last week's newspaper, is from Getty images, the "good" versions aren't available unless you buy them). It has been declared a "Fiesta de interés turístico internacional" (an honorific title given to certain Spanish festivities whose cultural value and popular tradition are recognised due to their ethnologic characteristics and are deemed to be important for tourism, more -in Spanish- on Wikipedia).
So off we went on a gorgeous sunny Sunday to admire the Palms and enjoy the festive ambiance. We arrived a bit late to see the throne be carried out of the Basilica de Santa Maria (main church in Elche) to the site where the procession was going to begin. But we did make it just in time to catch the marching band heading off and were able to hang around admiring the throne (the platforms on which the figures are carried during the processions) and watch the people begin to gather with their palms.
Here's the band leaving and a glimpse of the "costaleros" (people who carry the thrones, this year women from the cofradía de Santa Veronica) catching their breath and gathering their energy before the procession really begins:
Little by little people kept arriving to the meeting point, some carrying plain white palms, others more elaborate works of art:
The lady who made this one didn't say exactly how long it took her, just "several mornings":
She also made this one for her friend in 3 days:
And how about this?
She made sure to ask me if I'd noticed the details at the top: musicians and a flag-bearer from a procession, with a "throne" carrying Christ on the Cross:
So, everyone here? Everyone ready?
The priest steps up to his microphone to read from the Bible, then blesses the Palms and thanks the "costaleras" for shouldering their/our burden and then invites the people to take their places and let the procession begin.
The costaleras get into position, hoist the throne, turn it around so it is facing down the avenue in the direction the procession will be following and then stand at the ready.
(you'll get an explanation for that bell later)
Everyone lines up, starting with a marching band, then dignitaries and representatives of the other "cofradías" -who will be participating in other processions later in the week- who take the lead, followed by part of the crowd with their palms, then the throne, then the priests and more dignitaries.
The ladies of the Cofradía de Santa Veronica are all in position. A clang on the bell is the signal to lift, another to start walking, and later will give them a few moments to rest. And so on and so forth as they make their way through the streets of the city until they reach the Basilica de Santa María.
Hey! Want to play a game of "Where's Cris"? ;o)
Before leaving town we thought we'd visit the Basilica to see how everything looked... and found ourselves face to face with the procession again!
Over an hour later and the front of the line was just reaching the church! So tourism will just have to wait for another visit...
Recognise the two ladies at the top right-hand side of this next photo?
It's the lady I talked to at the beginning and her beautiful palm! :o) Heading with the others towards the Basilica:
More people bearing palms:
check out the top of that one on the left: