In a land known for its deep-rooted religious beliefs and traditions, there is no religious occasion more fervently celebrated in Spain than the Holy Week, or Semana Santa. Every year, hundreds of thousands come to this devoutly Roman Catholic county to witness the spectacle and enduring traditions of the people, as they mark the most important day in the Christian calendar.
The traditions of Semana Santa in Seville
Semana Santa commemorates the death of Christ, and celebrates his Resurrection, his triumph over death. The occasion is observed in every corner of Spain, but it is most exuberantly celebrated in the South, particularly in the cities of Cuenca, Valladolid, Murcia, Zamora, Malaga, Cordoba and Sevilla, or Seville. Every city, town and village has its Holy Week celebrations, but for many, no city celebrates the occasion more memorably than Sevilla, or Seville.
Though there are many traditions attached to Semana Santa, the most iconic ceremony is a street procession which commemorates the Passion of Christ. In Seville, this takes the form of a solemn parade of religious art icons known as tronos throughout the city each evening, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, to be devoutly and respectfully admired by populace. The processions are usually held at night and traditionally lit by torchlight, adding an air of medieval mystery to the solemn proceedings. In some places, the processions are accompanied by musicians, whose music sounds out in sharp contrast to the silence of the black-clad crowds, as they grieve for the loss of the Saviour.
Many of the icons are hundreds of years old; all are masterpieces of Spanish religious art, made of gold and silver and delicate, fine fabrics and other precious materials. Carnations are the traditional flowers used to decorate the floats. Many of the smaller tronos are carried on the arms and backs of devout volunteers, who bear their burdens gladly for the entire duration of the route. The people who carry the weight of the floats are called costaleros and are expected the carry these “thrones” with solemnity and grace. They use a small cushion, the costal, to protect themselves from getting sores during the long processions. Despite the weight, these devout volunteers bear their burdens gladly, for the procession is also a commemoration of the Jesus Christ’s journey to Calvary, and their act is an expression of their piety.
An outpouring of emotion
The processions are a fascinating occasion for visitors, who flock to Spain during the Holy Week to witness it. The solemn nature of many of the ceremonies, so different from other Spanish festivals, is sometimes off-putting to visitors, but many others become caught up and involved by the strong emotions invested in the ceremony. More than a few visitors have wept along with the other worshippers as the icons were carried past.
For others, cultural differences may make Semana Santa a cause of consternation. American visitors sometimes feel uneasy at the sight of a solemn procession featuring peaked masks, capes and torches, but in Spain, where the history of such a costume is altogether different, the same scene only calls forth feelings of deep devotion. The uniforms worn during the procession are meant to recall the Nazareños, people from Nazareth, and are worn only by the religious fraternities and brotherhoods responsible for carrying the statues and organizing the penitents and musicians. These remnants of medieval guilds are also the caretakers for the icons during the rest of the year.
Seville’s celebrations are world famous, but there are literally thousands of other processions held around Spain during the Holy Week. The character of each processions changes with each city or town. In some towns, the day is marked by merriment, with good-natured competitions held to adorn the statues carried during parade. In other towns, the processions are frighteningly reminiscent of the day they are supposed to commemorate, as the crowds yell out insults and catcalls at the marchers, just as the mobs must have done on the day of the Crucifixion. In still other towns, the parade of icons are accompanied by penitents, who silently lash their bare backs with whips in atonement for their sins. In some larger cities, a procession held on one night may even be completely different from the procession of the night before, or the night after. The only thing these varied parades have in common is their theme: a commemoration of the trials, death and rebirth of Christ, and its private meaning to the lives and beliefs of the worshippers.
The processions end with Easter Sunday, a day full of light and colour, when church and cathedral bells are heard ringing throughout the country. The day marks the Resurrection of Christ and celebrates his triumph over death. This is the time for festivities and joy, and not surprisingly, this is also the time when most of the Spanish will take a short vacation with their families. The occasion calls for a two-week holiday for schoolchildren, and a two-day holiday for workers. In fact, it is the only time of the year when as much as 80% of tourists in Spain will be Spanish.
Seville is still the most popular city to go to for Holy Week, though many of the other Andalusian towns draw a significant portion of the visitor crowd. In fact, almost all cathedral towns see a huge increase in foreign visitors during Semana Santa, which makes finding accommodations a difficult task. Some hotels in popular destinations are booked up to two years in advance. Despite the trouble in getting a place to stay however, the celebrations of Holy Week still draw thousands to Spain every year, to experience one of the most original, evocative and memorable festivals in the world.