Spain, Easter and Holy Week in

Spain, Easter and Holy Week in

Easter is the most important holiday of the year in Spain. Many shops and offices shorten their business hours during Holy Week and don't open at all on Good Friday. In many towns and cities religious processions, not cars, jam the streets on the Friday of Holy Week. While some Spaniards consider Easter an important time of the year to attend to one's religious devotions, others take advantage of the time off from work and school to enjoy a spring vacation. Spanish Holy Week observances generally revolve around a series of religious processions featuring floats depicting scenes from the Passion story, that is, the story of Jesus' arrest, trial, and execution. Religious statues, removed from their shrines in local churches and placed on top of platforms, form the basis of these scenes. Groups of men, and occasionally women, carry the resulting floats on their shoulders. Special religious services often accompany these processions, which take place throughout Holy Week.

Holy Week activities begin on Palm Sunday, which Spaniards call Pascua Florida, or "Flowery Easter." This name may have developed from the custom of blessing green branches and flowers at church services on this day. In time it came to refer to all of Holy Week. This is a popular day for Spanish children to undergo the ritual of confirmation, thus becoming full members of the Roman Catholic Church. Holy Week observances reach their climax on Good Friday, with the commemoration of Jesus' death by crucifixion (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). In recent years clergy members and others have attempted to increase the attention paid to Jesus' resurrection, celebrated on Easter Sunday. In some towns new Easter Sunday processions, with floats depicting the risen Christ, have been added to the traditional Holy Week parades. Apart from events such as these, Easter Sunday often passes quietly as a day spent at home with friends and family.

Holy Week in Seville

The people of Seville, a city in southern Spain, are famous throughout the country for the zeal with which they celebrate Holy Week. The town hosts between fifty and sixty religious brotherhoods whose members decorate and carry the floats that make up the somber religious processions. These organizations date back to the Middle Ages, when they were associated with the guilds, groups of men who pursued the same trade. Each brotherhood is named for a particular aspect of the Passion or for some biblical character associated with the Passion. Some say the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, Jesus the Nazarene and Holy Mary of the Conception, founded in 1340, is the oldest brotherhood in Seville. Each brotherhood possesses an image of the scene or biblical character it is named after, and these life-sized statues form the basis of the brotherhood's Holy Week floats. Some brotherhoods possess more than one image.

Spanish artisans have taken great care in the creation of these images so that they appear life-like, thereby moving the people to greater devotion. Tears made of glass slip down the cheeks of statues depicting the Virgin Mary, whose eyebrows and tresses may be made from real human hair (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). Some brotherhoods possess images that are hundreds of years old and have attracted a following beyond the membership of the brotherhood. One such image is the Virgin of Good Hope, whom Sevillians call, affectionately, La Macarena. Real jewels and precious metals adorn her robes. La Macarena takes to the streets on the evening of Good Friday, mourning for her dead son. The platform she rides upon measures nine feet wide, twenty feet long, and fifteen feet high. It weighs about half a ton.

Members of the religious brotherhoods carry the floats. These men, called costaleros, place bags of sawdust on their shoulders to cushion them against the float's enormous weight. The costaleros cannot be seen by the crowd as the folds of rich material draped along the edges of the float hang to the ground. The size and weight of the float determines the number of bearers necessary to carry the load. Large floats may require thirty to forty people to lift them up, and the largest may require up to fifty costaleros to bear the load. Since the bearers cannot see where they are going, one man, called the capataz, directs them along the route. From time to time, an extra will replace one of the men underneath the float, who may be temporarily overcome by heat and exhaustion in the crowded, dark, and relatively airless space underneath the platform. The costaleros must walk in step with one another so that the float progresses with a smooth motion that Sevillians find pleasing. At key points in the procession the bearers rock the float so that it sways from side to side, giving the appearance that the image is dancing.

Those members of the brotherhoods who are not carrying the floats still have a role to play during the processions. They may join the processions as nazarenos, "nazarenes," or penitentes. Nazarenos and penitentes wear long-sleeved, full-length robes and pointed hoods over their heads. These hoods completely cover their faces and shoulders, hiding their identity from onlookers. The resulting anonymity insures that the humble desire to do penance or express religious devotion inspires people to take on these roles, rather than the prideful desire to be recognized as taking part in an important religious spectacle. An internal support inside the nazarenos' hoods makes them stand up straight, something like a traditional "dunces'cap." The penitentes' hoods lack this internal support, and so flop down across the backs of their heads and shoulders. The penitentes and nazarenos also differ in the manner in which they participate in the procession. The penitentes take part as a means of doing penance (for more on penance, see Repentance). They carry heavy wooden crosses on their shoulders and sometimes walk barefoot or with their ankles chained together. Although the nazarenos don't take on these torments, their participation is also grueling, since processions usually last eight to twelve hours.

The first element in each procession is a large cross, called the "guide cross." Rows of nazarenos come next, followed by the float depicting Christ. The penitentes march behind the float of Christ. If a float bearing the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary also appears, it will follow behind the float depicting Jesus. Hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of people participate in each procession. Crowds line each side of the street during these solemn parades. The beauty and drama of the event so moves some of them that they shout out their compliments to the floats. Some even sing a short, wailing kind of song called a saeta, which summarizes the depth of their feelings about the event.

Easter Season in Seville

The joy repressed during Holy Week celebrations bursts forth a week or two after Easter, in La Feria de Sevilla, Seville's annual fair, also called La Feria del abril, or April Fair. This week-long event began in the nineteenth century as a horse and cattle fair. Buyers and sellers celebrated deals with little drinks purchased from wooden fairground booths. In time the importance of the livestock deals faded while the fairground celebrations grew. Finally the festivities took on a life of their own, completely divorced from the buying and selling of animals. Today Sevillians celebrate the April Fair by dressing in old-fashioned flamenco costumes, which means long, tight-fitting ruffled dresses for the women and close-fitting black trousers, short jackets, and hats for the men. The sons and daughters of well-to-do families, gorgeously costumed, ride horses through the streets. Large fairground tents known as casetas spring up in a section of town called Los Remedios. Sponsored by associations, clubs, and individuals, the casetas contain tables, chairs, bars, and even small stages so that guests may enjoy food, drink, and the Flamenco music and dance strongly associated with this region of Spain.

Further Reading

Epton, Nina. Spanish Fiestas. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1968. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Mitchell, Timothy. Passional Culture: Emotion, Religion and Society in Southern Spain. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. ---. Violence and Piety in Spanish Folklore. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Web Sites

"Semana Santa - Holy Week - Easter," posted through, the web site for Andalucia Magazine:

Holy Week in Seville, several pages sponsored by ALTUR, an organization promoting tourism in the region of Andalucia, Spain:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002