Semana Santa

Holy Week. I was not surprised at the scope and intensity of the celebrations here in Spain because I’d done a lot of reading and studying about Holy Week throughout my academic career. However, I was impressed to see it all in person. Somehow watching a recording of a procession on a VHS in a high school Spanish class didn’t really impress on me the largeness and universality of Semana Santa.

In the US, celebrating Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and even to an extent Easter, is a highly religious and personal event. People go to church and spend time with their families. Back in the US, I regularly missed out on even the Protestant parts of Holy Week. This was mostly due to me teaching evening classes. When your choir is singing on Sunday morning, you tend not to have any conflicts, but when they are singing at a Maundy Thursday service which is at 7 pm, introducing my Spanish 204 students to the past subjunctive always wins that scheduling battle. I know that the choir at my last church would always “strip the altar” at the end of the service, which involved taking all the things off of it and draping it in black until Easter morning. I also know that one year someone suggested we do something different and meaningful for Maundy Thursday service.  Turns out they meant they wanted to do a foot-washing ritual, which the associate pastor vetoed with an “Ewwwww” look on her face. Anyway, I digress. In no way had I ever seen anything like the Holy Week celebrations and rituals that went on in the south of Spain.

So what I knew about the processions before coming to Spain was that they involved enormously heavy floats carried by dozens of people, sporting religious statues that were hundreds of years old. I also knew that the people who participated in the processions would be wearing specific robes (Mom and I referred to the nazarenos as “the KKK” or “the coneheads” all week). But what I didn’t expect was to lean out my window at a hotel in Cádiz and see this.

Holy cow! Is that a tree? Clearly, second-hand knowledge doesn’t even come close to experiencing having two of these (one of Jesus and one of Mary) passing through the streets, accompanied by brass bands and hundreds of people until the wee hours of the morning.

Processions are very popular in the south of Spain; in Sevilla they had over 60 religious brotherhoods participating this year. You can buy a seat for a certain amount of time, so if there is a particular procession you want to watch (maybe someone you know is in it, or playing in one of the bands, or maybe you just like one of the floats over the others) you can have a front row seat. Otherwise, you have to stand on the side of the street, and if you wanted to cross there, too bad, because there are so many people out watching that it is impossible to get by without being rude.

In the north, processions aren’t as big a part of Semana Santa, but when my Mom and I were in Barcelona, we did see one procession . . . with bagpipes! Although I knew that bagpiping was a part of the culture in the north, I had always assumed that this was restricted to Galicia, which is the community right above Portugal. I didn’t know that people (and not just people, entire bands!) played bagpipes in Barcelona, which is on the Mediterranean.

Easter itself (or Resurrection Sunday as it’s called here) seems to be less of a public deal than the rest of Holy Week. Christians in the US get quietly and personally solemn during Holy Week, and then have colorful parties with painted eggs and bunnies on Easter. Here it seems that all the color and excitement happens during the week leading up to Easter, but on Easter here you just go to church and have a family lunch, although there are several processions on Easter as well.

In short, Holy Week in Spain is an intensely emotional and intensely public celebration. At one point as a band passed by, my mother commented, “You don’t even have to understand what’s going on; just from the music you KNOW something ominous is going to happen.” Culturally, it’s pretty awe-inspiring. Religiously, it is very intense, judging by the reactions I saw from people watching the processions. But I think that if you don’t share that cultural or religious background, it can be pretty difficult to understand. I heard some British tourists chatting in Barcelona who found the procession “really weird”, and coming from a culture that doesn’t do these sorts of things, yeah, it is! As for those outside the religious background, I give you this article about a group of atheists who wanted to participate in Holy Week with their own non-believing procession. If you think this is just sour grapes, I’d invite you to take a look at that photo up there, and imagine 60 of those walking by your door for a whole week. The procession was vetoed by the Madrid government, so the group changed to a protest of the prohibition in the Plaza del Sol, which was approved.


After a whole week off, the holidays are coming thick and fast here. We’ve get 2 weeks in school before we have a long weekend for the patron saint of our town, San Jorge (yep, the one with the dragon). I’m going to be heading up to Madrid to visit El Escorial and Toledo. We get a short week (Wednesday through Friday) and then we get another long weekend for Labor Day, which is May 1st here in Spain. I’m going to do some European traveling and go to Poland! I’ve never been to Eastern Europe so this should be exciting.


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