Semana Santa (Holy Week) is the most important religious holiday of the year in Spain. Annually between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, every town in Spain celebrates with public holidays and elaborate daily processions reenacting the Passion of Jesus Christ.
The processions are solemn parades of hooded penitents, heavy elaborate floats, and marching brass bands that carry on late into the night. Each procession originates at its neighborhood church, and passes through the narrow streets and small plazas to the town’s main church or cathedral.
On Palm Sunday, the first procession of the week began with a hooded penitent carrying a giant cross. Close behind, additional repentant figures followed carrying candles and wearing long belted robes and tall conical hats that masked their identities. Some walked barefoot, carried wooden crosses, or dragged heavy metal chains.
Amidst the gravity and seriousness of the procession, we observed families enjoying the traditions of the holiday. Street vendors sold hot potato chips and cone-shaped candy sticks, and children held balls of wax under the dripping candles.
Each procession included two elaborate floats, one of Christ and one of his mourning mother the Virgin Mary. As their own form of penance, dozens of burly men shouldered the heavy decorated platforms, and marched slowly and steadily for hours to the end of the parade route.
With great fanfare, the first float passed by, depicting the Palm Sunday triumphal entry of Jesus riding a donkey into the town of Jerusalem. The beautifully carved floats adorned with religious sculptures and gold-leaf are hundreds of years old and depict different episodes of the passion play.
The polished silver-plated float bearing the Virgin Mary is carried at the tail of the procession. Festooned with flowers and rows of long white candles, the passing of the Virgin is greeted with excited applause, tears of the faithful, and showers of dried flower petals.
Following each float, uniformed marching bands of horns, woodwinds, and drums played fervent religious compositions that echoed hauntingly between the walls of the narrow city streets. From balconies above the parade route, women moved by the spectacle cried out in the wailing song of the gypsy flamenco tradition.
The most significant period of Semana Santa is Holy Thursday night leading into the early morning of Good Friday. We woke early on Friday morning to attend the somber sunrise procession commemorating Christ’s crucifixion. In the chill of the pre-dawn hours, we watched penitents march by candlelight in quiet contemplation of the meaning of the coming day.
On Easter Sunday, as Christians worldwide celebrated the resurrection of Christ, we joined the cheerful crowds for the week’s final procession. With the church square filled to capacity, we followed as the final float passed beneath the carved baroque façade and disappeared through the large wooden basilica doors, thus concluding the holy week of Semana Santa in southern Spain.