SEVILLE, Spain (Reuters) - It is 1 a.m. on Good Friday and thousands of people hush their chatter in Seville's Duque Plaza. A cloud of incense is the only sign of what approaches.
First come the penitents, hundreds of mute figures in cone shaped hoods and long robes. They carry meter-long white candles. Then the centerpiece sways into view - a gilded float with an 18th Century wooden statue of Jesus.
This is The Silence, a brotherhood formed in 1340 and one of the best known of the solemn processions in the week before Easter that are drawing ever bigger crowds despite declining religious faith and Spain's worsening economic plight.
"Some people like football. Some people like bullfights. We like Holy Week," said Manuel Nunez, 30, one of 200 men dressed as Roman centurions to escort an image of the Virgin Mary in Seville's biggest procession, the Macarena, with 3,200 participants. Normally, Nunez works as a Royal Guard in Madrid.
Similar Christian commemorations of the death of Jesus are common throughout Spain and Latin America.
But nowhere is the fervor as intense as in Seville, a city of 700,000 in the Andalusia region of southern Spain.
And the crowds of both onlookers and participants have been growing despite a decline in Catholicism that has led to fewer than half of Spaniards attending church regularly. Some 72 percent described themselves as Catholic in a 2011 survey compared to 82 percent a decade earlier.
An estimated 60,000 hooded penitents will participate in Seville's processions this year, up from just over 45,000 reported in 2009.
Despite recession that has sent unemployment soaring above a quarter of the workforce, tens of thousands of tourists from all over Spain lined the streets to view the processions this year.
Among reasons for the growing appeal of the parades, participants cite a renewed interest in centuries-old traditions and a search for meaningful pursuits.
Back in the 1970s, churches paid dockworkers to carry the heavy floats. But now people pay for the privilege, says Moises Fajardo, 39, who every year for 20 years has carried the Macarena's 2450-kilo (5400-pound) float with an image of Jesus.
"There are hundreds of people on a waiting list to be bearers," said Fajardo, stretching his stiff neck as he waited his next turn under the float.
It takes 54 men at a time to carry the float on their shoulders. Two crews alternate 40-minute shifts throughout the night, hidden from the crowds behind curtains and walking in lockstep.
There are eight processions a day throughout Holy Week in Seville, but the best-known Cofradias, or brotherhoods, march in the early hours of Good Friday, weaving through the city for up to 14 hours along criss-crossing routes.
Hundreds of penitents known as Nazarenes, some barefoot, lead the processions in the pointed hoods with just eyes showing that for foreign tourists evoke the more sinister image of the Ku Klux Klan - which is not related to the Spanish tradition.
The Macarena procession is so long it takes two hours to file past as brass bands play accompanying dirges.
Crowds applaud as the bearers of the floats make difficult maneuvers through the narrow streets of the city.
Like many local people, Angel Garcia, a 39-year-old English teacher, watches a set number of parades every year in a particular order marked by his attachment to the different statues: "We've been doing this for more than 600 years, with great love and devotion to these sacred images."
Editing by Matthew Tostevin