Living in Las Gabias, only a hop away from the city of Granada I have gotten to see first hand the care and devotion that the Spanish people put into Semana Santa or, Holy Week in English. Each region of Spain has their own customs for celebrating the most important Catholic holiday but nobody does it quite like Andalusia. The Andalusian region is known for their vibrant and colorful celebrations and mourning during Holy Week. I thought for once, I'd lay off the fascinating and often surprising pagan roots that lie in most all (especially Easter) Christian holidays and focus on the beautiful tradition that surrounds them. This Maundy Thursday, I rounded up what I consider to be the most interesting things about celebrating Easter not only in Andalusia but all of Spain!
What is Semana Santa?
Spaniards know how to throw a party and Easter is no exception. It's a celebration and a mourning that is observed throughout Spain and most Latin American countries. This a week-long tribute to Christ beginning on Palm Sunday and leads up to Easter Sunday. The origin of these celebrations date back to around the 16th century when the Catholic church thought it would be a good idea to try and explain the biblical stories surrounding Easter in a way that the common folk could grasp-this meant lots of visuals and glamorous celebration, which the Catholic church is never lacking! Every year, massive processions take place across Spain to commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ.
Fun fact: procession comes from the Latin word "processio" which means marching forward. This is when the "Hermandades" or religious brotherhood march through the streets alongside the costaleros or bearers. The bearers walk through the streets hoisting up enormous pasos (floats pictured above) and misterios (pieces of art)that depict the Virgin Mary, Jesus, The Last Supper and, of course, The Passion. Some are so large they require 50 or more people to bear the weight, which can be as much as a 1,000kg to one ton!
For an American, they may conjure up some obviously uncomfortable images of the Ku Klux Klan. Though, the Hermandades have been around much longer than the KKK and have zero affiliation. The pointy hats symbolize penance and are worn with a tunic-like robe in different colors for different occasions. The origin of this dates back to the medieval ages when penitants wanted to, well, pay penance while still masking their identity. During Semana Santa, this getup is usually worn by Nazarenos(anyone Catholic adhering to any of the religious brotherhoods) with bare feet and shackles while marching for sometimes 14 hours at a time.
The burning of Judas
In Christianity, Judas is the two-faced jerk who betrayed Christ. Ultimately this led to Jesus being in the hands of Pontius Pilate who later crucified him and thus, the Christian tradition of Easter was born. Understandably, Catholics and Christians alike don't really like Judas too much. So what do the Spaniards(and many other Catholic or Orthodox Christian cultures) do? They burn him! Yep, every year, the night before Easter Sunday, throughout Spain representations of Judas are burned. Note: This is more heavily celebrated throughout Latin America today, though it still finds its way in some cities across Spain!
In short, Saeta is a highly revered flamenco style song that is religious and typically sung a capella. Originally, sung in the form of psalms and sometimes accompanied by drum beats it is used today as a mournful way to communicate with God publicly during Semana Santa. It is not uncommon to see these intensely passionate "saeteros" singing out from balconies or in the middle of the streets to the passing floats below depicting Jesus and his anguish.
Spanish tradition throughout most of Andalusia says that you absolutely must talk to God during the Holy Week, thus, saeta is used as a medium for many Spaniards. The Nazarenos are also known to sing saetas as they walk the streets.
Danza de la Muerte
In Verges which is located in Catalonia near Costa Brava there is an interesting event that takes place each year. On Maundy Thursday as Holy Week comes to an end, Danza de la Muerte takes place. This dance is performed by ten people dressed as skeletons and is supposed to symbolize the unity in death. The skeleton characters are known to dance with phrases noting the harsh truth about death. These include a scythe with the inscription “Nemini Parco” or "death forgives no-one" and another with a black flag with the inscription “lo temps es breu” aka "life can be short." All of the dancing is accompanied by drum beats and Roman soldiers known as "Manages"
Incense, Candles and wax ball competitions
Orange blossom incense overflows the streets of Spain as does the candles being held by the Nazarenos and on the floats. The streets develop a hard lining of wax in all colors and the smokey incense carried by all members young and old adds a unique flare to Holy Week whether in mourning or celebration mode. Overtime, though, this has evolved into another Andalusian tradition of its own between children where they will compete among themselves to see who can make the biggest wax ball! Following closely behind the Nazarenos they will gather dripping wax and mold it into their own wax creation. (awww)
Where is the best place for Semana Santa?
As I mentioned, each region of Spain puts their own twist on Holy Week. Some areas like Zamora tend to be much more focused on the solemnity and mourning while Malaga tends to weigh in more on the celebration piece.
In Southern Spain I would recommend any of the Andalusia staples. So, Granada, Malaga, Cordoba or Seville.
Further North, I'd recommend you check out Leon, Salamanca or Barcelona.
I hope you enjoyed this weeks post! I'd love to know if you've ever celebrated or observed any holidays in Spain and what your experience was like!