Semana Santa or Holy Week is fast approaching. Dancing skeletons, pointy hoods and all the crying… what is it all about?
Semana Santa is celebrated all over Spain and is considered one of the most religious holidays, the original celebrations began in the 16th century with the intention of presenting the story of the Passion of Christ in a way that was accessible to the public. Scenes from the story of crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are played and replayed in the street processions that take place in cities around Spain each year.
It’s a very intense spectacle with teeming crowds so those who are a bit claustrophobic in groups of people or those with small children should avoid the main procession areas, otherwise, I would highly recommend experiencing it at least once in your life even if you’re not religious. It’s a fascinating cultural insight into religion in Spain.
Where should I go to experience Semana Santa?
Though there are celebrations in many cities, the processions with the most pomp and circumstance are Seville and Malaga. Whilst others argue that the “true Semana Santa” takes place in the province of Castilla and Leon such as in Zamora, Valladolid, Salamanca, Avila and Segovia.
If you’re going to be in Madrid, here is a link to a guide about Semana Santa for 2018.
What to expect at the processions
The Semana Santa usually starts on the Sunday before Easter and continues until Easter Sunday, whereas in Castilla y Leon the processions start from Friday. Processions with floats laden with candles are carried by the brotherhoods that belong to each parish, these are members of associations and dedicate each brotherhood to a scene from the Passion of Christ, for example, one may represent the removal of Christ’s body from the cross whilst another may represent the flogging of Christ prior to the crucifixion.
Two elaborate floats carry the statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary, these heavy floats are ornate and laden with candles and flowers and can weigh up to 5000 kgs! These floats are carried on the shoulders of up to 50 men who suffer the weight of the float in processions that last many long hours (4 to 14 hours). This suffering is likened to the suffering experienced by Christ and the bearers, also known as Costaleros, consider this a great honour.
What if it rains?
It often rains on Semana Santa which means that the floats (pasos) can not be removed from the churches as they may be damaged by the rainwater, and if it rains there will be nothing to see but many disappointed Semana Santa attendees crying and bemoaning the misfortune of the weather.
Semana Santa is a costly business, apparently, the cost of the music bands alone is around €7,000 while the wreaths of flowers for the floats can cost €6,000. Now add another €5,000 to candles, €8,000 more if you need to bring in some extra muscle to carry your floats, and €800 for damage insurance in case it rains. So you can imagine the sheer disappointment when a rainy forecast causes the cancellation of the processions.
What do people eat at Semana Santa?
Torrijas, torrijas and more torrijas! Slices of thick bread dipped in egg then soaked in wine or milk, fried and sweetened with sugar and sprinkled with cinnamon. Another popular sweet treat is pestiños, a fried, honey-glazed pastry.
Semana Santa is also a time of strange and unique traditions.
So what’s with all the hoods?
The long conical hats worn by the members of some brotherhoods are not related to the Ku Klux Klan. The origin comes from a time when criminals would walk the streets in these hoods while they were mocked and insulted by the crowds, the purpose of these hoods in today’s processions is to re-enact Christ’s road to Calvary.
These men are known as Nazarenos represent a show of penitence and grieving for the Passion of Christ.
A get out of jail free card?
In 1759, a riot broke out in a prison in Malaga due to the outbreak of a plague. Prisoners forced their way out of the prisons and onto the streets to carry the image of Jesus in their own procession and were later returned to their cells. Apparently, King Charles III was so impressed that he declared that two dozen prisoners should be released every Easter and this tradition continues to the present day.
Celebrity Spotting in Malaga!
If you’re in Malaga for Semana Santa you may very well see Antonio Banderas in the crowd, he never misses a Semana Santa procession!
Renactments and Biblical Parades in Murcia!
Holy week in Murcia is most memorable in Lorca where the streets will be taken over by penitents, horses, and chariots, as well as enormous floats carrying baroque statues and depicting scenes from the Old Testament. A truly impressive spectacle!
Skeletons in Girona?
In Verges, Girona, people dress up as skeletons and take to the streets on Maundy Thursday to remind us all that death is the unifier of all, regardless of your station in life.
Wherever you are I hope that you enjoy your Easter holidays! Happy Easter!