Monday, March 30, 2009

La Semana Santa in Sevilla, Spain

The use of drama in religion is universal. Hindu scripts date from the 4th century and include gods and heros. The stories of Ruth and King David are relived at synagogues. The Hajj pilgrimage features a symbolic stoning of the devil. Even the live manger scenes at some of Paris’ churches carry on a centuries old tradition of Christmas performances. But one of the most moving pageantries in the world is Holy Week in Seville, Spain - La Semana Santa - where the story of the crucifixion is played out in the streets.

I first learned of this event from an advertisement. It was a travel poster of a silver Virgin Mary, lit by thousands of candles, surrounded by as many flowers, being carried on a float at night through the narrow passageways of Seville. It seemed so magical and beautiful and I wanted to be there. Fortunately, a niece decided to study in Spain several years ago and my sister-in-law, daughter, and I joined her for this ancient event.

The first of the 57 processions begins Palm Sunday night. During Holy Week, every church in Seville (really every church in Spain) will bring their Virgin Mary statue out of the church, process to the cathedral, pass through its aisles, and return the prized possession to her home for another year. There are day marches with children, silent processions, evening parades and one that starts at midnight. Some are brief and others miles long. They can be viewed from the streets, balconies, grandstands or on television. School is out and the sidewalk cafes fill with families visiting and children playing, awaiting the next procession.

A procession announces its coming with La Marcha, often a brass band. Also at the beginning is La Cruz de Guia, a banner identifying the church. Even if you aren’t a member of the church, you can walk with the next group, La Bulla, the crowds who join the parade. The largest part of the procession consists of Los Nazarenos, members of the church’s fraternity who perform public acts of religious observance and penance as well as charitable and community work. You can’t miss them. They wear long habits, pointed hoods which allow only eyes to peer out and often carry candles. The robes and hoods bear a disturbing resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan’s uniforms but the Nazarenos’ need for anonymity is different. Participation in the Holy Week processions is a penance and the covering allows even the royalty to participate without being recognized.

Next is El Paso de Cristo, a float with an image of Christ, usually on the cross or struggling with the weight of the cross. It is carried by 20 to 30 men who go unseen under the platform. The Penitents, also Nazarenos but with flat hoods, follow, carrying a cross and often barefoot. And finally, El Paso Palio, the float of La Virgen, that dramatizes the grief of a mother for the death of her son. All observers stand and are silent as this scene passes, even the children and those drinking at bars. Occasionally, a person is moved to sing a saeta, a spontaneous, improvised lament. One evening at dinner, I stepped outside our restaurant on a porch. Only a waiter and I stood watching a silent procession pass by on the very narrow, ten foot wide lane. We were at eye level with Jesus and Mary on their floats and so close, we could have touched them. I remembered the words of Orlando Gibbons’ beautiful hymn, "Drop, drop, slow tears and bathe those beauteous feet".

The most beloved Virgin is La Macarena, patron saint of matadors and no kin to the song. On Holy Thursday, we waited in light rain for one and a half hours to see her before she left the basilica on her pilgrimage to the cathedral. The Sevillan women were all in black that special day - dress, stockings, mantilla stiffened by shell, lace gloves, and stiletto heels. (I, literally, felt flat-footed.) Men and children also dressed their best. The line circled the tearful Virgin who is later carried on a solid silver paso with hundreds of candles and flowers and does not leave the sanctuary until midnight.

We joined the crowds again that night waiting for La Macarena to pass by. It was a two hour wait before her huge procession reached us at 2 a.m. The short walk to our hotel took another hour. At 11 a.m. the next morning, our taxi encountered the end of the Macarena procession slowly lumbering its way back to her church. Her journey would last twelve hours.

There are many tourists in Seville for La Semana Santa and yet the event has not become commercialized. Through the pageantry and the enormous community participation, generations have connected to the tragedy of the passion. It is a tribute to a church who wanted to bring its central story to the people and to a city that understands the power of drama.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

What Is There To Do in Hugo, Oklahoma

For native Parisians years ago, "going across the river" meant a trip to the Texoma Lounge or beer stores and dance halls that used to be located south of Hugo, Oklahoma. With the formation of Sun Valley and Toco, the need to cross the Red River diminished and most of the night life died out. For more recent residents of Paris, an outing to Oklahoma has usually meant a trip to Broken Bow. But more of us should be heading due north. Hugo is well worth a visit.

Traveling just 25 miles north brings you to a town that is quite different from Paris although we can both thank France for our names. Our Oklahoma neighbor was named after Victor Hugo, French author of Les Miserables. It has an eclectic list of claims to fame - home to three wintering circuses, the second largest herd of elephants in the country, birthplace of Bill Moyers, Busy Bee restaurant, Hugo Lake, and one of the Choctaw Nation’s casinos.

Fifteen percent of Hugo’s population is Native American and the largest employer in the county is the Choctaw Nation. This is evident with a quick stop at the Choctaw Nation Casino, just north of the Red River.
From a small trailer house to place off track bets, the casino has expanded over the years to house hundreds of slot machines and gaming tables. They are constructing a new facility complete with a hotel. For those who care to indulge in a little roll of the dice, it is quite handy.

Hugo earned the name "Circus City of the U.S" with three different circuses wintering there. Many of the artists return to their own countries for the off season but the animals remain. When we visited in February, the paraphernalia required of a traveling circus was scattered around the headquarters - folded tents, wooden poles, ticket kiosks, trailers of all sizes and shapes, and portable, metal fences used to enclose animals. It’s better to visit before they begin their circuit in March.

An impressive draw anytime of the year is the Endangered Ark, a haven for retired elephants and for encouraging reproduction by the endangered Asian elephant. If you call ahead, your family can receive a tour of the BIG barns and lovely grounds. Call Kristin Parra 580.326.2233.

Continuing in the circus theme is the Mount Olivet Cemetery, final resting place for "all the showmen under God’s Big Top". The headstones have playful pictures and carvings of elephants, trapeze artists, and circus tents. Engravings reflect a love of performing. "Loyal. Queen of the Bareback Riders" reads one monument. "May All Your Days Be Circus Days" advises another. The cemetery also draws rodeo fans. Lane Frost, for whom the movie "8 Seconds"was made, and Freckles Brown, rodeo’s all-time bull riding legend, are both buried here. There’s no place like this in the country and well worth a stop.

Lunch time in Hugo has some enticing options. If you haven’t had enough of the big top, try eating at Angie’s Circus Diner, which is filled with circus memorabilia. The most famous eatery in town is The Busy Bee, an old fashioned diner with a grand total of 10 seats at the counter. When I worked at the Lamar County Attorney’s office 28 years ago, we used to close occasionally for lunch and head here for their incredible hamburgers. I was thrilled to discover last month that these burgers are still as good as I remember.

Hugo was established in 1902 as a terminal town for the Frisco railroad at a time when Oklahoma was still officially Indian Territory (and Paris was 63 years old). The current Depot was built in 1914 and has been restored as a museum. An original Harvey House Restaurant, once part of the nation’s largest restaurant chain, has also been restored and a buffet lunch is served each week-day. The museum is worth some time and is open all year.

Hugo offers some interesting lodging. The Old Johnson House Inn, now a bed and breakfast, was built in 1920. Metra Christopherson, a transplant from Arizona, is owner and chef. Thanks to her gourmet cooking, an impressive breakfast spread is served to guests. She is also available for catering events at the house.
If you have ever wished you could spend the night at Pat Mayes Lake in a nice cabin with a fireplace, then you should try Hugo Lake, just east of the town. Twenty six cabins hug the shore with lake views. A marina is available and the angling good according to my fisherman friend and Hugo native, Ed Ellis - especially the crappie.

Hugo and Choctaw County are a part of a three county consortium that is developing the Kiamichi Trace - a pathway along the Kiamichi River starting at the border of Arkansas. The Caddo Indians moved south along this waterway to the Red River for their winter campground and back north for the summer. Check their website at for information on what’s happening in Hugo, Choctaw County, and along the river. You’ll be surprised at the offerings.

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