Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is a big deal in León, Spain. And that’s the understatement of the century. There are countless traditions that make up the week of Easter. From parades of people in the traditional robes the Ku Klux Klan appropriated to evening Mass, the most ubiquitous is the consumption of limonada.
Cafe culture is central to life in Spain. During Semana Santa and the weeks leading up to it, every cafe and bar in León boasts their selection of limonada, a traditional alcoholic drink that is definitely not lemonade. With its origins in León, this tradition dates back hundreds of years and has some questionable anti-Semitic customs associated with it.
“The biggest night of Semana Santa is jueves,” Luis Gullart, a 26-year-old León native said in a mixture of Spanish and English. “That’s when we drink.” Gullart grinned.
Sure enough, I pushed through the crowd Thursday night of Semana Santa, hugging the city wall, the one built back when the Romans were relevant, and inched forward toward the heart of León. The procession inched slowly through the middle of the street, blood vessels making their way through plaque-caked arteries. I managed to make it out of the processions’ crosshairs and into where the action really was that night: the bars. I traded the beat of processional drums for the din of excited voices and the clink of glasses.
Limonada is a red wine based drink mixed with fruit, sugar, and cinnamon. It tastes a lot like sangria and it looks like sangria, but don’t call it sangria.
“It’s a tradition,” Elena de Fuentes said. Her family owns Jamón Jamón, a bar notorious for its hearty tapas, Spanish appetizers. “Every year during Semana Santa all of the bars and all of the restaurants have limonada.”
She went on to explain the basics of the recipe in rapid fire Spanish. When prompted about the why — why does she and everyone she knows celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection with this drink — she didn’t know.
“It’s old, so old,” de Fuentes said. She looked to the rest of the employees in the shop for help. Her husband shrugged from the corner and continues shaving meat. “Do either of you know anything about the history of limonada?” She asks the two younger women also behind the counter. They don’t. One tells me to Google it.
The drink dates back to the Middle Ages. The biggest night to drink it is the Thursday before Good Friday because of these historic roots.
“I don’t know why,” Gullart laughed a little, “but when we drink it we say ‘kill Jews.’”
Story has it that on Good Friday in the Middle Ages a hoard of thousands of León Christians went into the Jewish district to take revenge on the Jewish people because of the role they played in Jesus’ death.
To prevent any murder, authorities supposedly allowed the taverns along the road to serve a tame type of alcohol to get the perpetrators drunk and lazy. This watered down sugary wine was limonada. It supposedly worked, no Jewish people were murdered. The drink and the toast lived on.
“It’s probably bad,” Gullart shrugged, “but it’s tradition.”
Every Leonese person I asked about it was either blasé or uncomfortable. Several, including Gullart, acknowledged it shouldn’t be said.
In the 21st century, it’s hard to believe this is contested, especially in a first world western country.
Yet, the tradition persists in full.
The Barrio Húmedo, the wet district with all the bars, gets filled to the brim with people on the Thursday of Semana Santa.
Here, thousands of people gathered. The sickly sweet smell of limonada hung in the air. People sat on the ground, homemade jugs of the drink at their feet, the lemons had floated to the top, pressed to the sides of the plastic encasements.
In unison, when Holy Thursday eclipsed into Good Friday, everyone raised their glasses of limonada.
“Matar judíos,” they said, true to tradition.