Altars

I came from a country where for many people, Easter is a commercial holiday that gives people an excuse to hard-boil some eggs, gorge on chocolate, and rediscover that Peeps (even in small quantities) really are a terrible idea.

In Málaga, things are different.

There are four to six parades daily – I repeat, DAILY – to honor Jesus and the Virgin Mary. There are marching bands and soldiers decked in their full gear. Women march in black dresses and veils to symbolize their mourning, and hundreds of people march dressed as Nazareños, people from Nazareth (wearing tunics that are very jarring to watch as an American, since they are reminiscent of the garb worn by Klu Klux Klan members).

If it rains, the parades are canceled. “If that happens, you will see grown men cry in the streets,” one of my English students warned me when describing how passionately this celebration is practiced in Southern Spain and how devastating it is to lose the ability to carry out the ritual.

But by far the most important custom practiced during Semana Santa is the carrying of altars. Usually around 100 men carry two massive and ornate altars – one for Jesus, one for Mary – on their necks and shoulders, swaying back and forth as they carry the heavy weight down the street. It is such an important part of Semana Santa that when a cholera outbreak crippled the population in 1759 and left too few healthy men to carry the altars, a group of inmates actually escaped from prison to carry the sacred statues — and also willingly turned themselves in after the procession (and interestingly enough, to this day one prisoner is pardoned every Semana Santa as a tribute).

I noticed that many of the Semana Santa rituals — wearing black, carrying a heavy load, dressing in traditional clothing — have one goal in mind — to foster empathy by relying on the power of shared experience. Regardless of what faith you subscribe to (if any), I dare you not to be affected when you see hundreds of people coming together to willingly carry a heavy and ornate altars on their necks and shoulders. I thought about what a powerful symbol it truly was.

Because we all are shouldering our own personal altars, aren’t we? Some are monuments to perpetual worry, piled higher daily with verbal bricks from a mental narrator. Some create shrines for ego, interested only in the people willing to add more to an already gaudy, overdeveloped structure. Some people put a particular lifestyle up on a pedestal; some opt for people. Some create altars to lovers, to jobs, to children, to pets.

I’m not always happy with the monuments I create for myself. I start with a framework of unreasonable expectation and worry and then slowly invest my time, energy, money, and passion into structures that I’m not comfortable carrying.

But I’ll continue to rebuild, remap, rework, and retry…

Happy Easter!

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