Easter is a big celebration in Spain, known as Semana Santa or Holy Week. We haven’t actually seen any of the Semana Santa celebrations in Spain yet, as obviously last year (our first Easter in Spain) we were in lockdown. This year, while we aren’t in lockdown, Easter celebrations have been cancelled again due to Covid so we will have to wait until next year!
Semana Santa is still a big part of Spanish culture though, so I thought I’d take a look at what it involves and what usually happens.
When is Semana Santa?
The date of Semana Santa varies depending on the date of the Easter weekend, but is usually held during the last weeks of March and first week of April. Holy Week is the seven days leading up to Domingo de Pascua (Easter Sunday).
The festivities of Semana Santa begin on Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) and last until Lunes de Pascua (Easter Monday).
The history of Semana Santa
The festival pays tribute to Jesus’s last days before being crucified. Semana Santa celebrations in Spain began around the 16th century when the Catholic church decided to present the story of the Passion of Christ in a way that the average person could understand. From then on, the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ was told through a series of processions through the streets each year.
What happens during Semana Santa?
Semana Santa is a week-long festival, where thousands of people take part in processions across Spain. Huge, decorated floats carrying religious statues form processions through the streets to the local church. These are accompanied by marching bands playing religious music and are watched by crowds lining the streets.
The most dramatic and passionate parades are held on Jueves Santo (Maundy Thursday) and Viernes Santo (Good Friday), with the most colourful and happy processions held on Domingo de Pascua (Easter Sunday).
Usually during this Holy Week visitors from across Spain travel to attend the crowded parades, plus of course international tourists visiting Spain to watch the festivities.
The different regions of Spain will have different ways of celebrating, but generally during the Semana Santa celebrations you will see…
Nazarenos are participants in the processions who often carry candles, torches, or wooden crosses. They wear long robes and cone shaped hoods which are often thought to resemble those worn by the KKK and as such are often seen as controversial to people from outside Spain. The robes and hoods in this Spanish tradition have no connection to the KKK, this style of robes were widely used in the medieval period for people demonstrating penance for their sins while being able to hide identity.
The robes vary in colour from region to region, and the nazarenos often walk city streets barefoot, and sometimes carry shackles and chains on their feet as penance.
Pasos are extravagant floats that are carried through the streets as part of the Semana Santa processions. Each float represents a scene from the story of the Passion of the Christ, and most brotherhoods carry two floats, one showing Jesus and another with the Virgin Mary. Often the sculptures on the pasos are hundreds of years old with many dating back to the 16th century.
The pasos are often accompanied by marching bands performing Marchas procesionales (processional marches) and religious music.
Costaleros carry the pasos on their shoulders during the processions – the name comes from the protective garment they wear on their heads called el costal. The costaleros are members of the church’s brotherhood, with between 20 to 40 costaleros per float.
The processions last for hours and the floats are extremely heavy, with the suffering experienced by the costaleros likened to that experienced by Christ. The costaleros consider it a great honor to carry the floats.
Hopefully next year we will get to experience the traditional Spanish festivities of Semana Santa! You can read more about other Spanish fiestas and holidays in this blog post.
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