Although Granada has been shaped by a rich blend of religions and cultures, the city’s Catholic roots are nearly impossible to miss. On any given day you can walk down a street with a name like “Calle Jesús y María,” admire statues of solemn-looking martyrs, or listen to the ever-present church bells ringing throughout the city. With the exception of the Granada’s Muslim and Jewish quarters, it seems that few parts of the city have been left untouched by Spain’s Christian underpinnings.
It came as quite a surprise, then, when I visited one of Granada’s basilicas for Mass one Sunday, only to find that the pews were mostly empty. In a congregation made up of middle-aged women and a handful of senior citizens, I was the youngest attendee by far.
As it turns out, my experience was far from uncommon. Though more than 70% of Spaniards still identify as Catholic, church attendance has been steadily declining over the past few decades. The 1970’s saw the fall of Francisco Franco’s culturally-conservative regime, and since then, the Catholic Church has lost a tremendous amount of social and political clout. For today’s Spaniards, religious identity has less to do with attending Mass and more to do with observing Catholic traditions like baptism, first communion, and most importantly: annual celebrations.
During my first few weeks in Granada, I was surprised to learn that a majority of Granadinos—religious or otherwise–enjoy a variety of Catholic festivities throughout the year. In the 5 months that I’ve spent here, I’ve had the chance to experience a number of these celebrations first-hand. While each event features an abundance of music and a contagiously energetic atmosphere, they are also unmistakably religious: often boasting larger-than-life crosses, biblical characters, and unbelievable amounts of incense.
La Cabalgata de Reyes Magos
When I arrived in January, I was delighted to discover that the Christmas season was still in full-swing. Every year on January 5th, cities throughout Spain celebrate the La Cabalgata de Reyes Magos (the Procession of the Wise Kings). That evening, the streets were alive with elaborate parades, where actors dressed as the biblical wise men tossed candy to eager groups of spectators. The following morning featured a Christmas-like gift exchange to represent the gold, frankincense, and myrrh given to Baby Jesus.
With the exception of Christmas, Semana Santa (Holy Week) is one of the most eagerly-anticipated celebrations in Granada. In the 6 days leading up to Easter, dozens of religious processions march through the streets to commemorate the trial, death, and resurrection of Christ. The entire city is filled with music and aromatic incense, and every few hours, ornate statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are paraded through the city center.
Día de la Cruz
Granada recently celebrated yet another religious festival: Día de la Cruz (also referred to as Cruces de Mayo). Each year on the 3rd of May, different neighborhoods throughout Granada display ornate crosses decorated with flowers. This city-wide competition is accompanied by lively flamenco performances and traditional Andalucian cuisine.
Granada may have moved past its days of obligatory church attendance, but it seems that the people here will always be cognizant of their city’s religious past. Just as Granada’s Muslim and Jewish roots can be found in the city’s architecture and infrastructure, these beloved Catholic festivals have stood the test of time. While cultural attitudes shift from generation to generation, Granada’s religious celebrations live on: honoring the age-old traditions that have shaped this city into what it is today.
Want to read more about Granada? Check out “The Art of Living: 5 Secrets to Spanish Well-Being”