Celebrating Semana Santa: Easter in Spain

Celebrating Semana Santa in Spain. Flickr/ fotEK10
Celebrating Semana Santa in Spain. Flickr/fotEK10

Easter can be a wonderfully evocative time, full of ritual and pageantry, incense and solemnity – and nowhere more so than in Andalucía in southern Spain.

Easter in Spain

In Spain, Easter is celebrated for the entire week before Easter Sunday – “Semana Santa,” or “Holy Week,” sees parades celebrating the country’s Roman Catholic heritage. In a tradition dating back to the 1500s, ornate statues depicting the Crucifixion are carried through the winding narrow streets of cities, towns and villages throughout Andalucía, the only region in Spain where it is honored with this kind of colorful pageantry.

Semana Santa

In Seville, Malaga, Granada, Antequera, thousands of locals and tourists travel for Semana Santa. They fill every available spot on the pavement, in doorways, hanging out of windows – united from early afternoon. Hundreds of men carry scenes depicting the Passion of Christ from one church to another in a hypnotic swaying march that can last for anything up to eight hours.

Last year, my family and I witnessed this amazing event on Good Friday in Archidona, about 30 miles (50 km) north of Malaga, a typical Spanish town of hilly winding roads.

The procession is led off by a brass band, of all things, which plays a mournful marching tune, over and over, perfectly in keeping with the swaying rhythm of fit men called ‘costeleros.’ The costeleros carry the floats and the penitents while others of the ‘brotherhood’ march alongside.

The statues linger in the memory, as well as the hypnotic quality to the march and the surreal “carnival” atmosphere. Here, bars are open on the day of the procession and people drink lots of beer. At home in Ireland, where I live, Good Friday and Christmas Day are the only days that pubs shut their doors!

In Archidona there were three life-size statues: Jesus carrying a silver Cross on a bed of red carnations; Jesus on the Cross with the Virgin Mary and two others at its foot; and the Virgin Mary on her own. Spain has an enormous devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Easter week is celebrated with passion in Andalucía, Spain. It's a wonderful time to visit.
Easter week is celebrated with passion in Andalucía, Spain. It’s a wonderful time to visit.

The statues are huge, tall and wide and carried on an ornate wooden dais, adorned with lanterns and gold leaf flakes. The whole thing weighs more than 5,000 pounds (2000 kg).

In Archidona, for instance, the Virgin Mary’s float was carried by 17 men on either side, six at the back, or four rows of five men underneath in the front and back – a staggering total of 80 men. Sixty more carried the second float of Jesus on the Cross.

The Virgin Mary’s float is adorned with 32 candles in front, 16 on either side; with 22 in silver candelabra at the back, 11 on either side, and suffused in fresh lilies.

You can see: I paid attention!

All these statues, candles and flowers are not for the fainthearted – the statues are so heavy and the days so warm that ‘costeleros’ can carry the float for only two minutes, which translates into about 20 meters (65 ft.). So, they sway for 20 meters, stop for a two-minute break while remaining in place (or occasionally nipping off to the loo in a nearby hostelry serving alcohol). Then, a man at the front of each float rings two bells to call the men back – one bell to lift the float and another to move again in unison.

But the spectacle doesn’t end there – men between 15 to 45 years old walk alongside the floats wearing white robes with purple hoods, while the floats are carried by purple velvet-robed men, a tradition passed down through the generations.

The penitents, women dressed all in black, walk between the floats, carrying a long, lighted candle in one hand and rosary beads in the other. Their long, black mantillas (light, transparent scarves) were a nod back to an earlier era when women could not go to Church with bare heads – a tradition that only died out in Ireland about 20 years ago. Even now, women meeting the Pope must cover their heads with a mantilla as a sign of respect. No such rule applies to men, however!

This amazing blend of art, pageantry and religious observation dates back to the mid-1200s when King Fernando III freed Seville from the Moors. During the liberation, brotherhoods of men were formed to rescue wounded comrades. The brotherhoods remained in place for generations, later ritualizing the scenes from the Easter Passion, from Christ’s Last Supper to his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

It was an amazing scene – the ornate detailed life-sized statues, the golden detail and carving on the timber float, the sheer physical effort of lifting and carrying them, the purple velvet robes, the swaying march, the hypnotic music, the evenly spaced ringing of the bell, the older Spaniards sitting at their front doors with rosary beads, the red carnations held by some spectators and the respectful hush despite the open-air festival feeling.

If You Travel to Spain for Easter

Background Info

About 7.25 million people live in the Southern Spain region of Andalucía, which is 87,000 sq km (33,900 sq mi). In the year 711, Southern Spain was invaded by the Moors. These Islamic warriors from Arabia and North Africa made the area their home for eight centuries, leaving strong cultural marks which are still visible today in monuments like the Mosque of Cordoba and the Alhambra Palace in Granada – even after the Christians conquered Andalucía again.

By the end of the 15th century, the last Moorish strongholds were taken back. But Islamic roots still run deep in this region, blending with Spanish heritage.

Things to See and Do

If you get a chance, try to visit the 18th century Church of Nazarene in Archidona, the 16th century Church of Santa Ana in Archidona and the Hermitage of the Virgen de Gracia in Archidona, which was originally a Moorish mosque.

The pink Flamingos at Fuente de Piedra Laguna, Andalucía’s largest lake and the most important breeding ground for the Greater Flamingo on the Iberian Peninsula, are definitely worth seeing. You might want to catch a bullfight in the 18th century bullring in Andalucía’s capitol, Seville or try out flamenco dancing. Do not miss the “dolmens” in the medieval town of Antequera; these megalithic mass tombs, made by Iberian people, are huge slabs of rock that date back 5,000 years.

Spain’s Tourism Ministry

Region of Andalucía

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Janna Graber

Janna Graber is an award-winning American travel journalist and current editor of Go World Travel Magazine. Since moving to Austria at age 19 for college, she's been in love with world travel, and has covered destinations around the globe for more than 55 newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of three travel anthology books, including "A Pink Suitecase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel".
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