Semana Santa is a religious festival and one of Spain’s most traditional festivals. It takes place in cities across Spain over Easter week. Here’s our guide to what happens during Semana Santa…
Over in the UK, for lots of people, Easter is about giving and eating chocolate eggs. In Spain, religious traditions are still prominent. And that is especially the case for Semana Santa, which means Holy Week.
What happens during Semana Santa?
Semana Santa is a week-long celebration that takes place in cities all over Spain – particularly in Andalucia. During the festival, thousands of people take part in processions as massive floats carrying religious statues are brought to the church. They are also accompanied by marching bands playing religious music with crowds lining the streets to witness it all.
Of all Spain’s many and varied festivals, Semana Santa is the most sombre but also one of the most captivating. The festival pays homage to Jesus Christ’s last days before he was crucified. Many floats feature an effigy of him either carrying a crucifix or already on it. The Virgin Mary is also a prominent effigy.
What to expect
There are several daily processions in the week running up to Easter Sunday. And they go on throughout the day and into the night. People taking part are members of a brotherhood, which usually means they belong to the same church. As with other Spanish festivals, there’s months of preparation beforehand. And people see it as an honour to take part.
The mood of the processions changes over the week. The most colourful and joyous processions take place on Easter Sunday.
Floats, pointy hoods and black veils
At each procession, floats depicting a scene from the Easter story are carried by ‘costaleros’ (like pallbearers) along a set route before reaching the church. They’re followed by ‘nazarenos’ who are often carrying candles, torches or wooden crosses. Completely covered in traditional robes and conical hoods, which cover their faces, it’s a haunting sight. Outside of Spain, it’s also the most iconic and curious feature of the celebrations because of their similarity to the robes worn by the Ku Klux Klan. The Spanish tradition, however, has nothing to do with the latter. It actually originates from medieval times where the robes and hoods would be worn by people to show their repentance over past sins. The same can’t be said for the Ku Klux Klan!
Processions also feature women ‘in mourning’. You’ll find them usually dressed in black and wearing a ‘mantilla’, which is a black lace veil.
Semana Santa is still a celebration
Semana Santa may not be as raucous as other Spanish festivals, but it’s still celebratory. With so many people (both locals and tourists) gathering for it, how can it not be! So you can expect to find bars, cafes and restaurants often crowded with people to celebrate in between and after processions. It’s also worth noting that many businesses and some restaurants are closed during Easter weekend.
Whilst you can increasingly find chocolate Easter eggs, bunnies and even chickens in Spain, they aren’t traditionally a big feature of the holiday. But it does have a host of dishes typical for Easter. Bear in mind that in the Christian calendar, Easter takes place after Lent, which tends to be a period of abstinence. So Easter marks the end of that and common foods you’ll find include sweet, fried pastries like Buñuelos (doughnuts) and Torrijos (similar to French toast). City Life Madrid has a good guide to Easter dishes popular in Spain.
Where to experience Semana Santa
The most renowned and liveliest Semana Santa celebrations are in Andalucia. Seville and Malaga have the biggest celebrations in the region. Meanwhile cities in the Castile and Leon region of Spain are known for having more traditional and sombre celebrations.
If you’d like to experience Semana Santa, check in with the local tourist office for information on the procession route and times.