Semana Santa


Holy Week...

Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is elaborately celebrated each year in Spain. This is the week preceding Easter Sunday or Pascua. Despite the serious symbolism of the week, the city is extremely vibrant and busy throughout. Regular department stores and little shops are often closed for the week's events, but the restaurants and bars of Sevilla remain full of people. Everyone comes out for the festivities of Semana Santa. Each afternoon during the week, 17th century floats bearing imagenes of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, emerge from the old Sevillan churches and process through the streets for hours and hours until finally snaking their way back to the church from which they came. Costaleros bear the weight of these enormous floats, while penitentes, both large and small, lead and follow the float bearing traditional capirotes and candles. The eerie and sorrowful flamenco hymns, written in minor keys, are played by the Semana Santa bands to set the desparing tone of the processions. The hymns of the band, the wailing saeta singers, and the cries of the pregoneros who bring the story of Jesus's crucifixion, can be heard from miles away. Sharing in the deeply rooted Christian traditions on this very special week is definitely worth your while.

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A typical white Easter procession of the Virgin Mary. See the life size of the figure (above left). Penitentes carrying torches in hopes that Jesus will forgive them of their sins from the previous year (above right).

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Cofradías- The Organizers

Cofrades or Cofradías, "brotherhoods" in English, are religious associations that care for the images of Jesus Christ and Mary throughout the year while planning the next Semana Santa events and celebrations for their city. These associations meet both individually and separately throughout the year. They can be considered the heart of Holy Week. The cofrades were formed in the 16th century to plan Holy Week. They abide by strict regulations that ensure they are true Catholics and do not include pagan traditions in their Holy Week events. Each of these groups takes their task extremely seriously, as they organize themselves into groups with hierarchy and committees. They guard the elaborate figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and other saints. Each year, tedious care is used to prepare the best new custom clothing for the figures.

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Imagenes of Jesus Christ (above left) and one of the Santas (above right). Observe the elaborate detailing not only of the clothing the figures bear, but also, the realistic expressions of anguish on their faces.

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The preparation for Semana Santa is much more in-depth than meets the eye. Thousands of visitors come from all over the world to see the Holy Week processions of Spain, and especially in places like Sevilla and surrounding areas of Andalucía. There are official mapped out routes for each procession of the week, and someone is in charge of organizing police and other security to work throughout this holiday to maintain the peace. Also important, are the cleaning crews each night that come through after each procession and clear litter from the streets. Seating is another aspect. Some municipal authorities provide special theatre type seating for certain processions whose routes follow main streets. This seating must be booked well in advance and can be quite costly. Members of the Cofradias also coordinate groups of men to carry the crosses and lanterns of the procession and most importantly, to carry the huge floats upon their backs. I saw first-hand while studying abroad, the preparation and solemnity of Semana Santa. Weeks and even months before Easter, it is not uncommon to run into a group of 30 men walking closely together in sync, bearing heavy replica floats upon their backs, practicing intently for the real week to arrive.

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The picture above is an areal view of the huge crowd gathering for a procession. Now you understand why the city practically shuts down during Semana Santa. No one can walk through the streets (above left). The other picture, (above right), is a picture of the costaleros practicing carrying the huge floats. See how closely they stand to one another? During the real week, these men remain under the blanketed floats sauntering onward for 6 or more hours without stopping.

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Los Procesiones

During the processions, a man or woman will often burst out in a saeta, and the entire procession comes to a halt until the song is finished. The singers are sometimes part of the procession but other times they stand on the balcony of a second story and sing over the massive crowd below. The Cofradias must plan the procession so that the timing of the saeta and the stopping of the floats are perfectly coordinated.

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The music of Semana Santa is usually in minor keys and is obviously extremely sorrowful. The brassy instruments like trumpets and saxophones help most in creating this sound. It reminded me of when the military trumpeters play "Taps" at the funeral of a veteran. Watching the processions and listening to the music brought tears to my eyes. The Holy Spirit was present in Sevilla during that week. The passion the Sevillans had for their faith and the mourning, as well as the celebrations of this week, were awesome to see.

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The Semana Santa bands pictured above. The ages of the musicians range from older men (above left) to really young children (above right).

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More members of the Semana Santa bands in Sevilla (above left). Notice most of them are playing brass instruments. Pictured (above right) is a man singing a Saeta from a balcony out over a stopped procession below. These a cappella songs are also sorrowful, matching the tone and mood of the songs played by the band.

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Why the Scary Outfits...?

The “Nazarenos” or “Penitentes” may initially catch Americans off gaurd, as their costumes resemble those worn by the Ku Klux Klan. These costumes actually have no sinister meaning. The Spanish reasoning for wearing these costumes is completely different than that of the KKK. The cone-shaped “capirote” symbolizes a rising toward the heavens. The Penitentes are seeking forgiveness for their sins, and the shape of the capirotes signify their penance and yearning to be closer to the heavens. They hide their identities as they mourn the pain and suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross. On Easter Sunday, each person removes his capirote in jubilation of Jesus's resurrection from the dead. Nazarenos are traditionally all male, but in recent years, many young girls and women have begun to wear the costumes. No one can decipher between males and females behind the disguise.

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Both pictures above are typical attire for the Penitentes during Semana Santa. Initially, it can be startling, but it is important to understand traditions in Spain before studying abroad there!

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During Semana Santa, the true Catholics do not eat meat. Therefore, during this week many restaurants serve fish and fresh vegetables as their meals of the day. “Bacalao con vegetales” (cod fish and vegetables) or “garbanzas con espinicas” (chickpeas and spinach). Also, rice pudding or “arroz con leche” is a popular dessert. My host mother made rice pudding during Semana Santa with cinnamon sprinkled on top.

What Does Everyone Else Wear?

As a study abroad student, you definitely won't have the priviledge of wearing a costume in the processions of Semana Santa, but what you wear is still very important. Definitely bring some nice clothes to wear this week, or you will truly feel like a silly American. In the South we call it "dressed to the nines". This expression only begins to describe how dressed up the Sevillans are during the processions. From little 5-year-old girls and boys to the oldest married couples and everyone else in between, the men wear nicely tailored suits (looking like Hugo Boss models), while the women wear expensive suits, dresses, and heels (looking like Jackie O who just jumped out of a Lilly Pulitzer catalog)! Flip flops, jeans, and t-shirts (typically worn by American travelers) would actually be seen as a sign of disrespect during this week.


The handsome Sevillanos pictured above portray exactly what I mean by "Hugo Boss" models. Almost every reputable young man in Sevilla is dressed like this for the procesiones during Semana Santa.

I filmed all three videos below during my study abroad semester during Semana Santa in Sevilla!

This first video is a great representation of the music played. Listen carefully for the brass instruments and the sorrowful tone of the music.

This video is good for seeing the enormous crowd of people present watching the processions and also to see how the Costaleros saunter with the floats upon their backs. It is all so organized.

This last video is longer, but it is mostly of the different parts of the procession including the float, the penitentes, the band, etc. Pay attention to the intricately detailed float, and think about how long it must have taken to design and build.

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Common Terms to know during Semana Santa:

Saetas are very soulful, loud, throaty songs, sung a cappella in the streets during Holy Week, either by one person or many.

Pregon is a speech given throughout Holy Week, remembering Jesus’s sacrifice for us.

Pregonero is the person(s) who give the pregones throughout the week.

Procesiones are the “pasos” or parades of people and floats that fair through the streets throughout Holy Week.

Imagenes are the life size figures of Mary and Jesus that are positioned atop the floats and paraded through the city.

Costaleros are members (generally male) of the Cofradias who carry the floats through the streets.

Faja is a thick belt worn around the waist of each costalero to protect his back from the strain of carrying the floats.

Penitentes also known as “Nazarenos”. These participants wear costumes--(capas, capirotes, and capuces) the entire week, while processing up and down the streets in the Semana Santa parades. They are symbolic of those undergoing public penance for their wrongful deeds.

Capa is the cape worn during Holy Week by Penitentes.

Capirote is the cone-shaped headdress worn on the heads of Penitentes.

Capuz is the part of the headdress that covers the face and the cone-shaped capirote of the Penitentes.

Tunica is the robe worn by the Penitentes under their capas


The outfits aren't that scary :)

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