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.
Photographer Alex Simon
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.