- Typical Spanish... Old Easter superstitions
- Featured City... Día de la tortilla (various cities)
- Famous Person... El Greco
- Spanish Recipe... Pestiños
- Popular saying... "Semana Santa enmarzá, hambre y mortandad"
- Vocabulary... Easter vocabulary
- Word of the month... Penitencia
- Notices... Subscribe to our offers
Old Easter superstitions
Maybe some of you are surprised by the fact that "superstition" and "Easter" have something to do with each other (you know: religion ended with pagan superstitions, reason ended religious superstitions and something will end the superstitions of the reason...), but in fact there are common things. Humans in general –and especially Spaniards- tend to not get too far away from magic habits that assure a good fortune or prevent great evils, maybe as a complement to divine invocation. As they say, one is never too protected against supreme evil.
But we won’t confuse the reader with an arid essay. We will quote several popular Easter superstitions that happen exclusively or more frequently in Easter.
For many devotes, the fact that it rains on the day of the procession of their favourite image is a disaster. Weather cannot be controlled, but for many there is a connection between the moon and the possibility of rain in Easter. Since Resurrection Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, it is believed that the moon has an influence on rain, similar to the one it has on the tides. This fact has not been proved yet.
There is a saying that states that "those love stories that start during Lent last longer". We don’t know what it is with the time between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday that elongates relationships (maybe it has to do with the period of fasting and abstinence). We would ask, but we haven’t met any couple that knows whether their story started in those days. One usually remembers whether it was the 25th of February or the 5th of March, but not whether the first kiss happened in the days prior to the equinox.
Even though it doesn’t happen so often, many families get together in Easter to have lunch or dinner. Some of them keep the old habit of trying not to have 13 people sitting at the same table. Remember that that was the number of diners at the Last Supper and the thing didn’t end up so well. For what they’ve told us, superstition has it that a betrayal will take place within the family, just as Judas betrayed Jesus.
Given the events that are commemorated, during those days there should be a most grave atmosphere in the houses of the devotees: jokes and jests are not forbidden, but should be reduced to the minimum, for God himself could interpret that we are mocking the death of his son. This went to the extent of believing that, if during these days of devotion a kid sticks out his tongue at his parents, it will turn into a snake’s tongue. We all know what animal symbolizes the devil since Adam and Eve’s story.
Its ever-changing location on the calendar (now we go back to the full moon and the equinox matter) causes it to have a certain magical element related to unique and one-off days. This was so much so that, during the 50’s and 60’s, it was believed that those born in Easter had the gift of healing by means of laying on of hands. Of course, this has never been proved.
These aren’t the only Easter-related superstitions, although it is true that it hasn’t been so easy finding them. When we read about them, we can’t stop wondering if there was a practical element in them, or even if they are part of an older core of beliefs that have deformed through time. Whatever the case is, it is certainly fascinating to know them.
Tortilla day (several cities)
We all know that tortilla is possibly the best known Spanish dish around the world and that its origins are more or less recent: may believe that the first one was cooked in Bilbao in the 19th century; although others think that the recipe is even older and was created in Extremadura. What we didn’t know us that the potato tortilla has its own celebration, or, to be exact, celebrations.
Many Spanish towns celebrate the "tortilla day". One could say that the date varies depending on the place, but the most common thing is that is takes place during March: the days start to be longer, the weather is milder due to the proximity of the spring and in some cities and villages spending a day outside starts to be considered a good leisure option. As could be the 9th of March in Fuenlabrada (Madrid) and Borox (Toledo) or the 25th in Sanchidrián (Ávila).
According to tradition, the ideal day for the tribute of the tortilla should be "Jueves Lardero" (the Thursday on which the Carnival starts), but as dates can vary from one year to another, many municipalities have decided to choose affixed date which, no matter what the lunar calendar indicates, the celebration takes place between Carnival and Easter. The truth is that it is a specialty that can be adequate for any of these cycles: in Carnival because we associate tortilla with partying and having fun with friends, and in Easter because its ingredients allow us to keep the fasting and abstinence.
Depending on the location, the party turns into a gastronomic feast, or into a simple but massive open-air picnic. What all of the "tortilla days" do have in common is a competition in which the experienced and the amateur cooks compete who is the one cook-craftsman-artist who can turn egg, potato and oil into a small piece of heaven. As a funny detail we will say that some bakeries create a special round bread called "notebook" for these days, so one can enjoy a portion of tortilla without having a dish, also in some places it is customary to have an egg crème caramel as dessert.
Some say that this day is the perfect expression of what Lent is: there are no huge verbenas nor fireworks and musical performances (maybe some regional dances’ associations), so it is all kept in a warm and discreet meditation and religious fervour that is usually reduced to a family reunion.
Others say that the main power of this celebration resides in its informal tone, almost as if it was an improvised party: it is almost as going to the countryside with a commemorative feast.
So, considering our earlier paragraphs, we can say one thing: if you realize that this celebration doesn’t take place in your town, meet some friends, cook a couple tortillas and go out to celebrate it. Be the pioneers of your neighbourhood and organize your own tortilla day!
When someone contemplates the works of "El Greco" knows that he cannot be but in Spain nor come from another epoch that isn’t that of that empire that debated itself between voluptuous richness, austere ascetics, divine victory and earthly failure. His grey landscapes seem a result of the plan of a god that is more sad than cruel, his lean figures, more than eternal glory, seem to long for the departure of this tormented world. The force of the identification of this artist’s work with his era is so great that it gets to the point that many books that deal with the kingdom of Philip II one will come across a painting by Domenikos Theotokopoulos sooner or later.
That was the name of this month’s character: he was actually born in Heraklion (Crete), although at the time the city was called Candia. It was the time when the island was in possession of the powerful Republic of Venice, and the Cretan traders –like Domenikos parents- were more than prosperous.
Nevertheless, the ambitions of the young Domenikos were different: he was drawn to painting, and focused on art in all his studies. The post-Byzantine style had become fashionable: a revision of the orthodox and Byzantine styles with icons of virgins and saints that really sold well. In 1566, at age 26, he was already a master of this technique and had achieved some recognition, what was amply demonstrated when he won 70 gold ducats for one of his tableaux. Before him, only Titian and Tintoretto had made such money.
One year later he left for Venice to learn from the great masters like Titian and Tintoretto, as well as Paolo Veronese and Jacopo Bassano. He encountered a very different style than the one in fashion in Crete: the use of light and drawing, the naturalism of the characters, the deep backgrounds... he was flabbergasted, and quickly integrated that way of painting, ignoring other fellow artists that advised him to keep painting in a Byzantine style with some Venetian add-ups.
He didn’t stop at the city of canals: he moved to Roma with a recommendation from the miniaturist Guilio Clovio sent to the Cardinal Alexander Farnesius himself. It seems that the votary was convinced by a sentence in the recommendation that stated that Domenikos was "a great disciple of Titian". That was actually a half-truth: the clever Clovio used the word disciple as a synonym of "admirer", but not as "pupil".
It wasn’t the Cardinal, though, his greatest supporter. The person who introduced the Cretan in the arts, intellectual and power circles of the time was Farnesius librarian: Fulvio Orsini. They were good times, but they ended soon and abruptly because of a fight with the Cardinal’s butler, who managed to kick him out of Court.
He had to start all over again, then: first as a miniature painter and later opening his own atelier and workshop. Always practical, he started studying the possibility of a new painting style called "Mannerism", defined by the strength of the depicted scenes, a peculiar use of light and the figures’ expressions. It was around this time when he started being called "Il Greco" ("The Greek"). But this period didn’t last too long either: he had to leave Rome by cause of a problem with the interpretation of the works of the legendary Michelangelo.
It was the time of the counter reform and the Council of Trent. Pope Pius V, with the intention of reinforcing the character of the Catholic Church, started criticising some works of art, considering them obscene. He considered especially disturbing some of the works of the Sistine Chapel, and decided to cover them up. Here is where "El Greco" steps in, but not to defend the work of the great Renaissance master, but to say that, if the work of Michelangelo was to be ditched, he himself could repeat it with equal mastery and greater demureness. The rest of the painters in Rome, incensed by this, went directly against him.
So he had no other choice but to flee to Spain, a great world power at the time. Moreover, he had heard that King Philip II was looking for decorators for his new palace-monastery located in El Escorial. There, he met his old supporter Giulio Clovio, who introduced him to Diego de Castilla, dean of the cathedral of Toledo. There is no doubt that Clovio, besides a good friend, was a good courtesan.
Very little after he arrived to the imperial city he had a few commissions: altarpieces and paintings for churches in which the style that would make him famous was already present: twisted and slender figures, an intense pathos even in characters that depict hieratic attitudes... as we said before, a style of art very consistent with what Spain was at the time. If you have seen some of his most famous paintings, like "El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz" (in Toledo), La Asunción de la Virgen (Art Institute de Chicago) or El expolio (Santa María de Toledo cathedral), you already know what we mean.
Apart from the religion-themed paintings, "El Greco" would also practice the portrait. They usually are solemn, circumspect and dark figures. A perfect example of how this artist understood portraits is the famous "El caballero de la mano en pecho", of which it is said that represents the archetype of the "Spanish hidalgo", and which many believe is a portrait of Miguel de Cervantes himself.
He would never leave Toledo again, but he always tried to be a Court painter. Maybe the constant refusal of the kings had to do with the fact that his peculiar way of painting had something that didn’t please those who occupied the power at the time: an empire of which only a sad pose remained.
"El Greco" died in 1614 in the city that saw him develop his greatest works. A little earlier, he had finished a painting that, although faithful to his mood, was groundbreaking both in form and subject: Laocoön, a tragic canvas in which he referred to Greek mythology (a priest of Apollo who is devoured with his children by a snake), and in which the city of Toledo symbolizes Troy. Maybe it was a sign of rebellion, restrained all the previous years for the eagerness of achieving fame and prestige. It is very possible that, due to that feeling, he perfectly understood a country that, even though the capital of an empire, never fully achieved glory.
Apart from torrijas, the typical Easter dessert is the pestiño. Funnily enough, this dessert has its origins in the Arab gastronomy of the Al-Andalus era. It is not hard to prepare (even less if you tried to prepare "orejas de carnival" last month), and if you have some time available it can be good to home-make them.
The compulsory ingredients are oil, flour and a lemon or orange peel. Then, there are some that adapt to personal taste, and may include honey, sugar or cinnamon; or white wine, liquor, star anise (a spice, not a drink) or clove.
Once the "optional" ingredients are chosen, we dive into action: we will use the oil to fry the lemon or orange peel –the objective is to give the oil a fruity flavour-. Once it has fried, we let the oil cool, add a cup of wine or liquor and put it all into flour, knead it well, put the star anise or the clove in, and we knead it again until we have a homogeneous dough. We cover this dough with a cloth and let it simmer for half an hour.
After those 30 minutes, we stretch the dough and cut it in rectangles. We can leave the dough pieces with this shape or twist them a bit, this is also optional. Then we heat enough oil and fry the rectangles in it so they brown, but not burn. We place them on the kitchen paper to remove the excess of oil and, before they cool down completely, we put them in a honey and hot water mix; if you don’t really like honey, you can batter them in a sugar and cinnamon mix.
This is only one of the many variations there are of pestiños. There are some people who don’t add liquor to them, others slightly toast the cloves or fry the star anise together with the fruit peel... to this extent, this recipe is just like that of tortilla: even though it is always the same, it is different every time.
One thing we haven’t said and maybe should have mentioned before having you copy-pasting this recipe to print it is that almost all bakeries in Spain sell pestiños, even outside of Easter. But, as they say in these cases, nothing beats home-made. You will surely find that home-made touch that differentiates them from those of your couple’s mom, the neighbour downstairs or your classmate’s grandma.
Semana Santa enmarzá, hambre y mortandad
Fatalist, almost tragic; that is how this saying referring to Easter and the weather sounds. The basic word is "enmarzá", which means "that takes place in March". The saying comes to say that if Easter happens in March, there will be times of shortage.
What does Easter have to do with prosperity? It is not exactly clear, though some say that it has to do with lunar cycles, the early coming of spring, and the greater possibility for the early sprouts are attacked by plagues, diseases and possible night frosts.
Thus, an Easter time that takes place in an early month doesn’t really cause anything. It just means that the seasonal cycles are a bit off, and that can affect many things. There is no witchcraft, just nature.
Should we worry, then, being this time so close? Not so much nowadays; this saying comes from a time in which crops depended wholly on weather and climate changes, but nowadays technologies have evolved.
Nevertheless, there is still a certain superstitious respect about this type of sayings. In the end, we are talking about two factors, divinity and climate, against which little could be done in past times.
On the other hand, we can also expect something good. Keep in mind that, as a counterpart to this saying, there is another one that says: "Sale Marzo y entra Abril; nubecitas, a llorar y campitos a reír" ("March is gone and April comes; clouds to cry and fields to laugh").
Easter is all about shudder, drama and even tragedy... and we don’t only refer to processions, but to the sensations that take over the profane when asked how did we like the saetas, or if we saw the paso in detail, or if we saw any of our cofrades in the chicotá... To spare you the martyrdom of guessing out what they mean, here you have some of the most used terms during these days:
- Alba: we are used to say alba as a synonym of dawn, but it also designates the white tunic that is put over the habit during masses or religious events.
- Capirote: that is the name that receives the pointed hat that the penitents and members of the different brotherhoods carry on their heads, and that puzzles American tourists so much...
- Chicotá: the long walks that the members of the brotherhoods have to make to take the floats in procession. It is not the physical way so much, but the act of walking.
- Cofrade / Cofradía: a cofrade is a member of a cofradía, a brotherhood of devout that has an official authorization to praise a saint or an image (in this case, to go on procession). We insist on the fact that they must have an official permit.
- Costalero: one of the persons that carry the floats with the images of Christ or the Virgin. They are also called "portadores" (carriers) or "hombres de trono" (throne men).
- Estación: it is a brief visit that is made to a church during Holy Thursday or Friday with the intention of praying. Many estaciones can be done at different churches during these days.
- Hachones: some of the "carts" that carry the figures on procession have short thick candles in each corner. These are the hachones.
- Misterio: this is a complicated term; a misterio (mystery) would be each of the floats and figures that form a procession.
- Nazareno: it can be an image of Christ dressed in a purple habit or carrying a cross, or a penitent that is also wearing a purple habit, or the member of a brotherhood that is penitent. This being so, it is possible that the image of nazareno bearing a cross is preceded by a nazareno of a brotherhood, and followed by a penitent nazareno that also belongs to a different brotherhood, who also precedes another brotherhood carrying a nazareno in purple. We know... it can get confusing.
- Paso: it can be mistaken with a misterio, but it actually refers to the decorated wooden structure on which the corresponding figure is located. Summing up, a paso is not a misterio until the figure of Christ is placed on it.
- Puñales: have you ever seen those curious goldsmith-made pieces that represent a flaming heart crossed by knives? Well, those are the puñales (knives). Some of the images of the Virgin in procession carry one of these pieces, which represent the hard words on Christ’s destiny which, as a prophecy, said Simeon to Mary.
- Saeta: in some places, the devout and the faithful sing couplets when the misterios go by them. They are short songs with a religious theme that express pain for the death of the Savior. They are especially popular in Andalusia and sound like a flamenco lament.
- Vía Crucis: it is the path, signalled with different Stations of the Cross, or altars, that simulates the way Jesus Christ walked up to mount Calvary, where he was crucified. Tradition has it that the procession stops for a moment on each station.
There are many more terms, but we have selected the most common ones, or those which can be especially confusing. Anyway, if you have any doubts don’t be shy and ask them... You will find people that are happy to explain the traditions of their brotherhood.
It is one of the most repeated words during Easter: penitence. When said to a Spanish-speaker, the meaning can be tricky. I evokes a tempestuous repentance for a wrong deed we committed; a tough process through which we must go in order to obtain the forgiveness; a painful action with which we pay for our sins. Let us say -with permission to mix terms of different creeds- that penitence is the tool with which we fix the mess we have done to karma.
This said, we also must remember that sometimes penitence is imposed. The term also designates the punishment that the confessor gives to the sinner and which normally consists in repentance through prayer.
It is a complex word, one of those that only those who say it gravely use it right, a word that hides a terrible meaning, let’s not deny it: the fact that we can only fix what we have done wrong through suffering.
Punishment, repentance, destiny, torment... all of those condensed into a single word. We hope that you never have to use it.
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