Hooded figures, long candles, the slow toll of drums, and biblical figurines carried throughout the streets. These are the sounds and images that characterize Semana Santa – “Holy Week” – in Spain, where the Catholic holiday of Easter isn’t just a day, it’s a whole week. I had previously experienced Semana Santa in the most famous place in Spain to witness it – the southern region of Andalucía. There, it’s the event of the year and people flock from throughout Spain and beyond to partake in the festivities. Head to this old blog post to read more about my experiences of Semana Santa in Andalucía. This year though, I was excited to see how Semana Santa in Madrid, the capital, differed.
First off, I’d like to put to the rest the myth that during this time, everyone is walking barefoot, self-flagellating while carrying crosses and crying. Yes, people carry crosses. Yes, some of them walk barefoot. But as far as I can tell, having experienced Semana Santa in Madrid, Sevilla, and Cordoba, I never saw any self-flagellation or crying. Maybe this happens in smaller towns? If someone has had a different experience, please share in the comments.
My experiences with Semana Santa show that it is a religious holiday, yes, and when the pasos go by, people go quiet. Yet they do so often with a beer in hand and a cigarette hanging from the other side of the mouth. Recently, I read an article about a dying Spanish man’s last wish – to have a cigarette and glass of wine on a terrace. Safe to say, this is how many Spaniards go about life in general – religious holidays included.
Semana Santa – A Brief Explanation
The most prevalent and widespread celebrations during Semana Santa are the processions – or parades. These events, which often take place starting in the evening and going for hours into the night, are complex cultural affairs with sufficient amount of ritual to make an anthropologist’s head spin.
Throughout the week, different brotherhoods (cofradías) have processions with either one or two floats (pasos), accompanied by music. These often overlap each other, especially on the very important days, such as Good Friday.
First, comes a group of Nazarenos – “People of Nazareth.” For Americans, this is probably the most shocking sight, as they remind us too much of KKK costumes. There is no defined link between the two costumes, but safe to say the dress of the Nazarenos came first and has no negative racial connotation. In any case, watching the faceless, silent figures walk throughout the streets carrying candles or crosses is an impressive sight, especially at night.
But then you see little kids dressed up in the costumes and suddenly the outfits aren’t weird, just cute.
Perhaps even more impressive though are the costaleros, despite the fact that half the time you won’t see them. The costaleros are the guys that carry the floats. Needless to say, these are usually big, burly guys. The pasos are so heavy that the costaleros can only bear to carry them a short period of time. They work in shifts, switching out routinely to get a rest – and a smoke and cigarette break. These guys get some SERIOUS respect because pasos weigh upwards of 3,000 pounds (1400 kilos)!
The processions move very, very slowly as the costeleros shuffle along, taking frequent breaks. It takes them about half an hour to go a couple of blocks. The audience watches with collective bated breath as the costeleros approach a corner, lower, or raise the paso.
Once these actions are successfully completed, the audience bursts into appreciative applause. Those were my favorite moments, as the humanness of both crowd and procession members can be felt, connected and appreciated from both sides.
In many processions, the grieving Virgin Mary follows the paso of Jesus with the cross. She is even more spectacular, with her massive candles, canopy, gilded base, and a long cloak that drapes all the way to the ground behind her.
After the pasos comes the drums and/or a full band. The music highlights the solemnity of the affair and the drums beat a slow heartbeat to the slow footsteps of the marching members of the procession.
Torrijas – A Traditional Easter Food
Holiday food – especially sweets – is a big thing in Spain. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as the food culture here is serious. For Easter, the dish to eat is torrijas, which is basically French toast but made with special bread (sold in bakeries and groceries stores during this time only). Torrijas often come swimming in milk.
During Semana Santa, torrijas are EVERYWHERE. Vegan versions are pretty easy to find during Semana Santa in Madrid as many vegan and veg-friendly restaurants have them, so we sampled a few varieties from some of our favorite places. We followed Madrid Vegano’s guide to all the vegan torrijas in Madrid.
Would you like to experience Semana Santa in Madrid? What unique holiday traditions have you witnessed, or how is Easter celebrated in your country?