My experience of Easter has always focused on candy, Easter egg hunts, and ham. Lots and lots of ham. So spending Easter Sunday in Alcalá de Henares was a far cry from what I had grown accustomed to.
Catholic processions are held throughout Spain during the Holy Week, many starting on Palm Sunday. Just about 35 km northeast of Madrid, the Holy Week processions through the streets of Alcalá de Henares are fascinating. Hundreds of people, dressed in traditional Catholic garb march through the city. Some are dressed in the classic penitential robes and walk barefoot. Others take penitence to another level and walk through town in shackles.
Many of these processions are accompanied by a group of penitents carrying a float. Perched atop the float religious imagery looks down on the people. Often times these images are large sculptures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or other Catholic saints.
The streets are lined with Spaniards and tourists alike. All watching in silence. Some make the sign of the cross reveling in the religious and holy experience that the procession represents. Others, like me, watch simply in awe of the unique experience.
To be honest, despite my being absolutely enthralled by the whole experience, it left me feeling a bit uncomfortable. Not because of the religious aspects, but because of the penitential garb. Having grown up in the United States, I struggled to reconcile the religious aspects of the dress with the awful racial history that it is so often coupled with.
Despite my hang-ups and regardless of the reason for lining the streets of an Easter Sunday procession in Alcalá de Henares, it is an unforgettable experience. One that can’t be matched by candy, Easter egg hunts, or ham. Even lots and lots of ham.