Seven strange traditions celebrated at Easter in Spain

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From the Catalan town where residents dress up as skeletons to the practice of freeing two dozen inmates from prison every Easter, Spain has its share of surprisingly strange Holy Week activities.


One of Spain’s darkest Easter celebrations is held in the town of Bierzo in León. If you are ever around that way during Holy Week you might be surprised to hear people saying “let’s go kill the Jews” – “salir a matar Judíos” –  as they knock back glasses of special wine-lemonade.

The common story for how this tradition started is that back in the 14th century, a nobleman named Suero de Quiñones owed money to a Jewish lender. But instead of paying it off, he rallied others against the Jews, saying that they had killed Jesus. Between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Quiñones and his supporters stormed the Jewish quarter and killed many people, including the money lender.

To celebrate the massacre, Quiñones and his group drank wine, beginning the start of the tradition that still exists today in the name of the Holy Week drink.

Deadly dancing 

While most of Spain holds traditional Maundy Thursday processions, the Catalan town of Verges (Girona) sees five of its residents, including three children, dress up in skeleton costumes, carry Death’s sickle and dance around the streets to the sound of drums. It resembles other ‘danse macabre’ celebrations across Europe, all of which have been around since medieval times to remind us that no matter one’s station in life, the Dance of Death unites all.

Pub crawl procession

In 1929, a well-known character in the northern Spanish city of León was run over by a rubbish truck while he was relieving himself at the city walls. His name was Genaro Blanco, a bon-vivant who loved his prostitutes almost as much as his liquor. His mourning drinking buddies decided to pay tribute to him on Maundy Thursday, the anniversary of his death. Year after year, more followers have joined Genarín’s bar-hopping pagan procession, the record being 15,000 in 2005.


Hoods and hats

Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP

The long conical hats worn by the members of some brotherhoods during Spain’s Easter celebrations have nothing to do with the Ku Klux Klan. Instead, they originate in the hats worn by people found guilty of religious crimes in the Spanish Inquisition. Those criminals would walk the streets in the hats while they were mocked and insulted by the crowds. By donning the hats in Spain’s Easter celebrations, penitents are also re-enacting Christ’s road to Calvary.

Get out of jail free card

If you’re Catholic and in jail in Spain, you might just be in luck. In 1759, a riot broke out in a Málaga prison after inmates found out Easter processions would be cancelled due to a plague outbreak. They forced their way out, carried Jesus’ image through the streets and then miraculously returned to their cells. King Charles III was so impressed that from that day on he decided to free two dozen jailbirds every Easter. The tradition lives on to this day.

Enter the turbos

Photo: Pedro Armestre/AFP

Christian traditions take a turn for the surreal in the city of Cuenca when participants in the ‘Road to Calvary’ procession mock Jesus on his way to the cross. The turbos, as they are known, are meant to represent the Jews present during Christ’s death sentence and ensuing crucifixion. For twelve hours, they jostle the nazarenos, or penitents, and prevent them from carrying Jesus’s image through the streets.


Crucifixion trek

Photo: Pedro Armestre/AFP

Although not quite as bloody as the ones seen in some parts of South America, Taking place in  Valverde de la Veras in Extremadura ‘Via Crucis’ is far from being pain-free. Participants, known as empalaos, have their bodies tightly strapped to a wooden cross with rope and then walk barefoot through the town streets for hours, their faces always covered with a veil. Their march represents the 14 stations of the cross, symbolising Christ carrying the cross to his crucifixion.