Semana Santa: Celebrating Holy Week in Spain

In this Easter Sunday procession in Salamanca, only women and girls carry the paso with the statue of the Virgin Mary. The Holy Mother’s paso is sometimes called a trono or throne.

Throughout Spain, the week leading up to Easter Sunday, known as Semana Santa or Holy Week, is observed in ways both joyous and solemn. Each afternoon and evening from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, thousands of Spaniards and visitors gather in city streets and town squares to celebrate a Catholic tradition that dates back at least to the 15th century—to the reign of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The Catholic monarchs, as they are called, told the story of Christ’s resurrection to a largely illiterate population in a way that has endured for centuries–through processions. Here’s our experience: 

We arrived in Madrid for the first time on a Maundy Thursday– the Thursday before Easter commemorates Christ’s Last Supper and is one of the Catholic Church’s holiest days. Though it was after 9 pm, we were confident we’d find plenty of dinner options in a city known for dining late. Instead, we found one restaurant after another closed. Finally, at the Bar Santa Clara, the proprietor explained most places were closed not due to the hour, but to the day, pointing out it was Holy Week and that in Madrid, people take Easter very seriously. He told us we could have “anything on toast” but that was all they were serving that evening. We ordered everything available–cheese, tomatoes, anchovies, and ham—all on toast.  

Good Friday is one of the most important days in Holy Week and the pasos and processions are fittingly elaborate. It was well after midnight when this Good Friday procession returned to Toledo’s Cathedral.

We returned to our apartment behind the Prado Museum close to midnight and were getting ready for bed when our son excitedly announced, “I hear a parade!” We followed the pounding of drums and the heady scent of incense down the street towards San Jeronimo—the church favored by Spain’s Royal Family. Sure enough, a candlelit procession appeared out of the dark. First, we saw columns of marchers in various colored robes, faces covered, wearing tall, pointed hats. It was unsettling. Next, seemingly swaying to the music and moving ever so slowly, came an enormous float we learned was called a ‘Paso’, featuring a life-sized Christ figure. Beneath it, we could see the strained faces of the men who somberly carried it on their shoulders. We watched until the entire procession passed into the church. 

Be prepared for enormous crowds during Semana Santa. The Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, one of the most beautiful in Spain, filled in minutes before the procession began. Streets and sometimes whole areas of a city or town may be closed to traffic during Holy Week and even passing on foot can be difficult or impossible.

We didn’t understand the scale of Holy Week celebrations in Spain, or their importance, until the next evening when we found ourselves caught up in enormous crowds between four different processions around the Plaza Mayor, as we tried unsuccessfully to get to dinner on time. This, we began to understand, was how they celebrate Semana Santa. We joined in the celebrations. 

Semana Santa, or Holy Week, begins with Palm Sunday and is observed in cities and towns throughout Spain– a largely Catholic country. Palm fronds are intricately woven and carried in processions that Sunday. The palms symbolize and memorialize Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem where the faithful greeted him, tossing fronds in his path.

Fast forward a few years and we are in Sevilla. Preparations are well underway for Semana Santa, though the festivities won’t begin for another week. Colorful banners are hung from balconies lining the procession routes that crisscross the city. Barricades are erected, and chairs and bleachers are set up in key locations for those privileged few with tickets. The rest of us will crowd the streets and sidewalks waiting and watching for the story of the Passion of the Christ to unfold as it has for 500 years or more. 

Sevilla is known for its elaborate Semana Santa celebrations. Chairs, banners and barricades went up at least a week before the festivities began. It was exciting to see all the preparations underway!

Meanwhile, ‘cofradias’ (also called ‘hermandades’), or brotherhoods, are busy in parishes everywhere, painstakingly assembling the lavish pasos. These floats are beautiful works of art featuring biblical scenes that tell the story of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection from the New Testament. They hold life-sized statues, often handcrafted from wood, and can include precious metals. They are laden with candles, fresh flowers, and icons. The most beautiful of these hold a single statue—the Madonna or Senora Dolarosa, the grieving mother of Christ. She is enrobed in an elaborate cape, often hand-embroidered with gold and silver thread, wearing gleaming jewels and surrounded by candles and flowers.  

Jamie is a member of the cofradia at the Church of the Magdalena and one of the 35 to 45 men, called costaleros, who will carry this elaborate paso through the streets of Sevilla during Holy Week. Once fully decorated with candles and flowers, some pasos can weigh 5,000 pounds or more.

While the pasos are being readied, you can visit them in their parishes. We spent days wandering from church to church in several cities to see these magnificent pasos up close, admiring the detail and careful handiwork of the cofradias. We had the chance to chat with one gentleman, Jamie, who is not only a member of the brotherhood at the Iglesia de Santa Maria Magdalene in Sevilla, but also one of the bearers called ‘costaleros’, who carry the massive pasos for up to six hours through Sevilla’s cobbled streets. Some, he told us, can weigh 5,000 pounds and take between 35 to 45 men to carry. Only women carry the Paso of the Holy Mother in some parishes, as we saw in several processions in Salamanca last Easter.  

The Senora Dolorosa represents Christ’s grieving mother, the Virgin Mary. Typically, these beautiful sculptures are surrounded with flowers and candles, and are often bedecked in jewels and exquisite garments. They usually follow the other pasos in Holy Week processions.

Shortly before a procession begins, the sidewalks and streets swell with families who seem to appear from nowhere, and a carnival-like atmosphere prevails. There are street vendors selling sweets and snacks, drinks, balloons, tiny penitent figures, and other souvenirs. Soon, the incense smoke thickens, music starts, and the excitement in the air is palpable. Fathers hoist their young children onto their shoulders, and everyone crowds closer and often right into the street where the procession will pass. Some have only drummers; most have full marching bands, and sometimes there is singing. Depending on the size and importance of the brotherhood, parish, and the day in Holy Week, there can be numerous pasos in a single procession.  

Every detail on the pasos must be perfect. At the Iglesia Colegial del Divino Salvador in Sevilla, members of the cofradia work together to ready their pasos for Holy Week.

Embroidered banners announce the cofradias and a priest with a silver cross leads children carrying incense or lanterns. Nazarenos, in their colored robes, faces covered by capuz or hoods, and hats called capirotes, pointing high to the heavens, follow. These are the penitents. There are also Mujeres de la Mantilla, ladies dressed all in black from their lacey veils to their shoes, silently processing, carrying candles and rosary beads. Everywhere in Spain, men, women, and children march slowly through the streets during Semana Santa’s processions, each with a role to play in this ancient ritual.  

Processions on each day of Holy Week correspond to the story of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection with different pasos depicting specific biblical scenes from the New Testament. In Ronda, one of Andalusia’s famous “white towns,” Jesus is shown arriving in Jerusalem on his donkey on Palm Sunday.

It is magical and emotional to be a part of this. Many people cry silently with tears streaming down their faces, some sob violently, and others cheer and clap or watch quietly as the exquisite pasos go by, but you will not see a blank expression. These processions touch people at the most visceral level. Finally, the pasos will re-enter the church they left hours before, and the streets empty almost as quickly as they filled. 

Pasos, like this one at the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo, are on display in churches during Holy Week. Visiting different parishes gives you the chance to admire the careful craftmanship that goes into these spectacular floats and see pasos from processions you may not have the chance to attend.

Every city we visited during this sacred time of year had procession routes and schedules available online and/or in print. Look for the booklets in cafes, shops, and bars. This is valuable information for visitors to either find or avoid the processions. Be aware of street closures. Whole areas of a city may be closed to traffic, and even passing on foot is extremely difficult, especially during the most important processions—like Good Friday. Sevilla, Toledo, Malaga, and other cities have Semana Santa apps you can download on your iPhone.  

Young, old, believers or not–everyone crowds onto Spanish streets, like this one in Granada, to watch the traditional processions that mark Semana Santa.

We have been fortunate to celebrate Semana Santa and Easter Sunday in Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, Toledo, and Salamanca. Each city offered a unique and beautiful experience. No matter which region you visit, Semana Santa is an incredible time to be in Spain. 

Holy Week begins on March 24, and Easter Sunday is March 31, 2024.

Originally, only men could participate in Semana Santa processions as Nazarenos or penitents. The role of the Mujeres de la Mantilla, or mourners, made it possible for women to be a part of Holy Week observances in a public way. They carry candles and rosary beads and always wear all black– from their lacey mantillas to their often surprisingly high-heeled shoes.
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