Semana Santa… No… not Santa’s week. Christmas has passed. (I know, I know… terrible joke). Semana Santa (Holy Week) is celebrated in Spain during the entire week before Easter Sunday. That’s right, folks, a whole week. This week is essential to Spanish culture and is the biggest religious celebration of the year, which means public holidays, aka, a week off of work for us auxiliares. So what exactly is Semana Santa? What should you expect and what should you do? I’m here to give you a quick lo-down on the history behind Semana Santa and give you some ideas on how to spend this glorious free time just right.
What Is Semana Santa?
Every country celebrates Easter a little differently. While Easter is considered a religious holiday in the United States, it has become quite secular over the years. While we seem to focus the majority of our attention on Easter Sunday, Spain begins celebrating much earlier. The celebrations in larger cities normally start with ‘Domingo de Ramos’, or Palm Sunday with some regions starting a couple of days earlier. This day celebrates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and most celebrations come to an end on ‘Domingo de Pascua’, or Easter Sunday. However, the larger processions and those taking place in smaller villages take place on the weekend starting the Thursday before Easter Sunday. This Thursday, known as Holy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper and Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus with Easter Sunday celebrating His resurrection.
The processions that take place throughout the cities and towns of Spain can be intense to watch with the participants marching in a slow and deliberate pace, elegant floats (pasos), and strong rhythmic drumming. Those who participate in the procession are part of a religious brotherhood. The skill necessary to carry the heavy floats takes a lot of practice to build up the required strength and endurance due to the weight of the statues and religious figures placed atop and the length of these processions as they slowly carry them to their church. Some floats date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. These carriers, called “costaleros,” have one of the more important and serious traditional roles within the procession. This part of the parade is followed by men, called “nazarenos”, dressed in tunics, hoods, and masks (which can look a bit concerning when you come from the States as you can see from the pictures) and women dressed in traditional costume. There is no correlation between the use of these pointy hats (capirotes) for Spain’s purposes and those known in the United States. These hats are used to cover the face as a sign of mourning and taken off on Easter Sunday to rejoice the resurrection of Jesus… a good fact to know beforehand.
Spending your time in Spain during their most important festival is definitely worth the experience whether you are religious or not. For some the experience is a moment filled with celebration and entertainment and for others it is a time for tradition and reflection. One thing is for sure: these processions can continue into the morning hours so make sure to take that siesta.
Now that we know a little bit behind the history of Semana Santa let’s talk about some of the best places to experience this tradition. We’ll go from the more traditional and popular cities to the less traditional if you’re looking for something a little… different.
Check out Seville, Málaga, or Córdoba if you want some of the bigger and more traditional processions. Andalucía tends to be the most popular region to experience Semana Santa for its large number of processions, good weather, tradition, parties, and of course the flamenco.
- Castilla y León: Zamora, Valladolid, León, Salamanca, Ávila, Segovia
If you don’t want to go too far outside of Madrid check out these cities for Semana Santa. While the processions won’t be to the same grandeur as those in Seville, Zamora does have some of the partying that can be seen in Seville, especially on Holy Thursday (Jueves Santos). Zamora may be one of the smaller cities but their floats are designed by famous artists and known to be some of the most beautiful. Valladolid also has beautiful, traditional floats that go back centuries. While León doesn’t have as many processions as in Andalucía, it does have a comparable amount. Salamanca, Ávila, and Segovia may not have the same prestige as the rest of these cities but these historical cities make for an excellent environment to see at least one procession.
- Less Traditional Regions: La Rioja and Valencia
La Rioja is one of the few places where the practice of self-flagellation still takes place, which was a common practice up until the 18th century. The men who take part in this act dress up in white habits and strike their backs with grass ropes for around 20 minutes, so that’s why I say… different. Valencia celebrates a little differently as well, but in a less self-harmful way, with Maritime Holy Week, which includes three main events throughout the week complete with reenactments.
No matter where you go, you are bound to see some part of the Semana Santa traditions. If you want to travel somewhere outside of Spain or a different region for Semana Santa, try going for the first half of the week and then heading to one of the cities mentioned above to catch the larger processions as Easter Sunday approaches.
Before I go, here are some quick tips and advice to think about:
- Book Your Trip Early
Once you decide where you want to go, book your stay early. Couchsurfing can be a great option for a free stay and to get a local’s perspective on the Semana Santa traditions. Airbnb and hostals also work well as cheaper options. However, the longer you wait, the less options will be available and prices will go up. Half of Spain is on vacation so finding a place to stay is very competitive. All I can say is plan ahead.
- Be Prepared for Crowds
If you decide to check out the more popular locations for Semana Santa in Spain be prepared for crowds. By the Thursday before Easter Sunday it becomes very difficult to walk through the streets in the center of town, as processions get bigger. Believe me, that ten-minute walk back to where you’re staying will turn into a 30-minute walk just trying to navigate around the crowds.
- Traditional Easter Foods To Try
While there are many traditional Easter dishes varying by region, the two that stand out are the Mona de Pascua and Torrijas. Torrijas are thick pieces of bread soaked in a mixture of milk and eggs, fried and served with honey and sugar… so basically Spain’s version of French Toast. The Mona de Pascua, which was gifted to me by my neighbors last year, is a ‘cake’ baked with boiled eggs, or chocolate ones, inside. I wish I were given the one with chocolate eggs… oh, well! Always good to try something once!
Well, there you have it. I hope you found this post helpful. I know I learned a thing or two just writing it! Take this wisdom and go forth. I’m sure you will enjoy this time away from work no matter how you spend it!
¡ Feliz Semana Santa y Felices Pascuas!
Study abroad in Spain Fall 2015
MA in International Education 2017-2018