Due to the circumstances pertaining to the covid-19 virus the world is currently undergoing, all processions and Easter celebrations in Spain have been postponed until September 2020 for everyone’s safety and health.
What is Semana Santa in Spain?
Holy Week (Semana Santa) is the biggest religious celebration of the year in Spain, during which everyone has a week off, there’s a ton of eating and drinking, and seemingly unending, elaborate and solemn processions. There is so much to see and do in Spain at Easter. The reenactment of the Passion of Christ is the main focus, but there are many bizarre and unusual traditions that go along with the main events, depending on where in Spain it is. Mostly, Easter for Spanish people is a time of celebration and family, spirituality and rest from the daily grind.
Associations known as cofradías or ‘brotherhoods’ (whose members take part in the processions) are a strong tradition in Spain, with many dating back to the Middle Ages. Semana Santa processions are also known as ‘penance processions’ and involve members of the brotherhood (nazarenos) parading from their church to the city’s cathedral. The members carry elaborate and heavy pasos or floats with depictions of Christ or the Virgin Mary in various poses of agony. They move in rhythmic time to the beating of drums and beautiful, stately music played by religious marching bands. It is not uncommon to see participants and onlookers moved to tears by the display of solemn piousness.
Another striking feature of these processions are the people – usually men and boys – wearing capirotes, the tall pointed conical hats that rather creepily cover their entire faces, but for the eyes, along with a belted robe. This has absolutely nothing to do with the KKK hoods, as some might think. The capirotes are worn as a sign of penance, and in the past were worn in the street, so that sinners could atone for their sins without being recognized. The women often wear the mantilla, a black lace veil worn high on the back of the head. They are expected to be modestly dressed, however, with longer skirts while not being too flashy.
The Cofradías Penitenciales or Brotherhood of Penitents
These Easter processions are a lot of work. Each city or village’s cofradía penitenciale is in charge of organizing and executing these parades. These organizations are essentially associations of the church’s lay-parishioners, from the local bartender to the doctor or small business owner. This particular association or brotherhood is focused on the objective of penitence, through participation in one of the processions.
Thus, they are in charge of preparing and practicing weeks and months in advance in order to perfect their techniques and strength. The costaleros – men who carry the pasos – need a lot of training in advance. The brotherhood also organizes the music, permits, and schedule of all the events. For some, devotion to their cofradías is an all-consuming part of their life and spirituality, while for others it is more of a seasonal activity.
Some Easter Treats
There is a lot to see and do in Spain at Easter, but what about to eat? While chocolate Easter eggs, or boiled and dyed Easter eggs, are becoming more popular, they are not traditionally part of Easter celebrations in Spain. Instead, Spaniards have their own special treats for Semana Santa.
Torrijas are a traditional Semana Santa sweet snack of bread soaked in milk and egg before being fried and served with sugar or honey, and are available all over the country during Holy Week.
Pestiños are little pastries popular throughout Spain, but especially in Andalusia. Sesame-flavored dough is fried then glazed with honey or sugar.
Mona de Pascua are popular in Catalonia and Valencia, this cake is usually given to children as a gift. Cakes are topped with either boiled eggs, or chocolate ones, as well as colorful decorations.
Flores de Semana Santa also known as flores manchegas are sweet and fried pastries that come in fun shapes.
Buñuelos are fried doughnuts, made with simple ingredients of water, milk, egg or yeast and can be sweet or savory.
Leche Frita, “fried milk”, is a sweet typical in northern Spain, made by cooking flour with milk and sugar until it becomes firm. It is then topped off with cinnamon and a sugar glaze. It is reminiscent of what Americans call French toast.
What to See in Spain at Easter – the 10 Best Processions
Easter in Los Picaos de San Vincente Sonsierra
In the village of Los Picaos de San Vicente de Sonsierra in La Rioja, there is the one of the only displays of penitence that includes flagellation, a practice that was common in many places until the 18th century. Though actual self-flagellation is no longer allowed, this ritual has survived in the village, symbolically. On their route, the penitents who are dressed in white robes, whip their own backs with esparto-grass ropes for twenty minutes.
Easter in Seville
Seville holds some of the biggest Holy Week processions including La Madruga (dawn), a series of processions that take place during the night of Maundy Thursday and into the morning of Good Friday, a highlight of Semana Santa for many spectators. Listen out for the saetas, or bursts of flamenco from people on balconies along the procession route who are so moved by the spectacle they have to express their lamentations.
Easter in Malaga
In Málaga, giant tronos, or thrones, are carried through the streets by members of the brotherhoods dressed in long purple robes and followed by women dressed in black and wearing the typical mantilla, or lace veil. There is a real festival atmosphere in the city during Holy Week, much livelier than some of the more somber celebrations in Spain’s northern towns and cities.
Photographer Alex Simon
Easter in Zamora
Zamora lays claim to the oldest Semana Santa celebrations in Spain, which date back to 1179. The city, which is close to the Portuguese border, increases its population by five times during Holy Week, as up to 300,000 people flock to watch the ancient traditions. After midnight, for the Capas Paradas, the door of the church opens and the brothers are dressed in the Capa of Chiva (hooded cloaks) in brown cloth with black brocade, carrying lanterns.
They march in silence as solemn music plays. On Thursday at 11 pm is a procession inspired by the burial of a poor man in a Zamora’s village. Jesus’ body is covered with a shroud and is led to the grave in a simple stretcher, accompanied by neighbors in complete silence, broken only by the bells. Later, there is the singing of the Miserere, a highlight of the procession, and one of the most loved events of the Holy Week in Zamora.
Easter in Valverde de la Veras
Although not quite as bloody as the ones seen in some parts of South America, taking part in a Valverde de la Veras’ ‘Via Crucis’ is far from being pain-free. Participants, known as empalaos, have their bodies tightly strapped to a wooden cross with rope and then walk barefoot through the town streets for hours, their faces always covered with a veil. Their march represents the 14 stations of the cross, symbolizing Christ carrying the cross to his crucifixion.
Easter in Calanda
El Romper de la Hora in Calanda consists of the beating in unison of a huge number of drums in one square to commemorates the death of Jesus Christ. It is said that the drumming represents the noise that was heard on Earth after the death of Jesus Christ. This hair-raising spectacle is made all the more so when the drummers’ hands become bloodied from the force and duration of the passionate beating of the drums.
Easter in Tudela
This year in the town of Tudela in the south of Navarra in the golden land of vegetables, they have a special tradition whereby a child dressed as an Angel swings out of the church steeple window and across the main square and stops in front of the Virgin Mary. The ‘Angel de Tudela’ removes the dark veil off the eyes of Jesus Christ’s mother la Virgin Maria to allow her to “see the light” revealing the news of the resurrection of Christ first hand form the Angel of Tudela.
Easter in Cabanillas
In main plaza of a tiny town called Cabanillas, near Tudela in southern Navarra, a very strange ceremony is enacted on Easter Sunday. Following the main procession where a girl dressed as an angel tells the Virgin Mary the good news of Jesus’s rising, the “Capture of Judas” takes place. Basically, the young people of the village dress up as Romans and pursue Judas (also played by a youth) in order to lynch him. Judas wears a red and silver garment and a mesh over his head, and has to run and hide among the crowd while they scold him and shout at him. He sometimes enters houses and steals food, or jumps from balconies. The Romans take about fifteen minutes to pursue and finally catch Judas, after which they decapitate (symbolically of course) him as punishment for his betrayal.
Easter in Valladolid
In Valladolid, their Easter celebration was declared a festival of international tourist interest in 1980 (the first Holy Week celebration in Spain to have such a designation). The General Procession of the Sacred Passion of the Redeemer, celebrated on Good Friday, is one of the most magical processions where all 21 brotherhoods of Valladolid converge in one plaza. The sheer size of it and the grandiose splendor is just breath-taking. But the city is chock full of amazing processions that week, which is why it is also widely considered one of the top places to be in Spain for Semana Santa.
Easter in Ezcaray
Ezcaray is a gorgeous little medieval town deep in Rioja, whose processions are known to be especially moving. The atmosphere is intensely mystical, especially the nighttime procession on Maundy Thursday that begins at 9pm and winds around the town by candlelight. It finishes with the Holy Hour ritual at 11:30 pm, ushering the crowds into Good Friday. On Good Friday there is another evening procession, the Procesión del Santo Entierro, that also carries the participants and spectators into the solemn and fascinating mystique of Holy Week. On Easter Sunday, the town hall throws coins and sweets out into the excited crowd of families with children.
What to do in Spain at Easter
Walking & Wine in Northern Spain
Walking & Wine in Northern Spain Tour can be done during the Holy Week. Spring is the perfect moment to visit this region, as the countryside bursts back to life. Our walking and wine tour is restructured around the dates and the visits we make in the afternoon so that you can walk and enjoy the activities for that day and then in the afternoon join in on the Semana Santa festivities. We include a visit to Los Picaos de San Vicente de Sonsierra and the evening procession in Ezcaray to view the fantastic centuries-old rituals and processions.
Hidden Gems of the North for the Foodies
Hidden Gems of the North can be done during the Holy Week. This journey in spring is a delightful way to discover the region, its traditions and culture through its world-famous gastronomy.