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Semana Santa

A Traditional Taste of Spain

It’s Sunday, and you’re in the middle of a crowd lining Avenida de la Constitución in Seville. Everyone’s excited, and you begin to wonder what all the fuss is about. Suddenly, you start to smell incense, and you see things you’ve never seen before: figures in pointed caps and hoods carrying candles and handing sweets to children. Up ahead, you spot what looks like a massive golden palanquin sporting lifelike wooden figures.

A float with a wooden idol is borne through of a church entryway.

You’ve celebrated Easter before, but never in Andalusia, Spain. In this autonomous community, from Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) to Domingo de la Resurrección (Easter Sunday), Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions run throughout every city, with Seville’s lauded as the most impressive. The striking Roman Catholic imagery of the Passion of the Christ and the Sorrows of the Virgin may be intimidating at first, but if you understand the symbolism of these traditions, you’ll be better able to appreciate the beauty of Holy Week.

The first thing you see is a small group of men bearing a large ornate cross upright. This is the cruz de guía (guiding cross), which heads every Holy Week procession. Each brotherhood cofradía (brotherhood, or an organization of Catholics who do service and safeguard ceremonies) carries a different cross and runs its own procession with distinct colors according to unique and long-lived worship traditions.

Next come the nazarenos (hooded figures with colorful habits and capirotes or pointy caps). Many Americans confuse these marchers’ attire for KKK outfits, but this tradition actually has roots in the Spanish Inquisition’s methods of enforcing penance on sinners. Today, the pointed cap represents the anonymous wearer’s penitence and desire to connect with heaven.

A series of hooded figures walking down a street, cross in tow

After a while, one of several massive floats draws near, depicting Christ sitting in solemn splendor upon a gilded throne. These pasos (floats), decorated with gold embellishments, candles, and flowers, bear carved wooden images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or other saints from the Catholic tradition. These surreal beauties, many of which are centuries old, are designed to teach people the story of the Resurrection in an engaging way and to impress believers and nonbelievers alike.

The crying face of a wooden Virgin Mary idol

When the float is lowered gently to the ground, you see for the first time the costaleros (float-bearers) underneath, supporting the enormous weight on a wooden framework, normally hidden from sight by red fabric. These members of the brotherhood carry the two-ton floats for up to 14 hours. Seeing these tired men, one has to marvel at the faith and commitment these cofrades (cofradía members) must have to voluntarily bear such a weight for so long.

Throughout, you hear brass bands playing grand marchas de procesión (religious marches), to accompany the floats. Sometimes flamenco singers will joyously serenade Christ or the Virgin with songs of praise. The music demonstrates the deep respect and reverence many still have for these symbols and the events they represent.

The procession makes its way toward the massive Seville cathedral. There, the party will turn around and march back to the local church where they started. This cycle will repeat itself throughout the week, with 61 cofradías and 50,000 nazarenos participating. Holy Week is a huge event, so make sure to arm yourself with a procession map and schedule and bring lots of water to combat the dry heat. In the crowds, be mindful of others who have come from all over to view the processions, and try to match the volume of the public, as some processions are more solemn than others.

A bird's eye view of a large procession at night

If you feel the scale of the parades to be overwhelming, spend a night or two in a tapas bar, soaking in the atmosphere of excitement. Try classic Spanish Easter desserts like pestiños (folded, fried dough glazed in honey and sesame seeds) and torrijas (deep-fried French toast soaked in milk and cinnamon). You could also visit Plaza de España, an impressive plaza with murals of Spanish cities; or the Real Alcázar de Sevilla, a massive palace with expansive gardens; or any of the hundred other sights to see in one of Andalusia’s biggest cities. On this trip you’ll truly experience ancient Seville, a place of deep-rooted religious festivity and cultural tradition.

A side view of a float with wooden idols of Christ on a cross and a Roman soldier

Sam Lambert