What Happens During Semana Santa in Spain?

Spain's Easter celebrations are a big deal

Semana Santa procession in Leon, Spain
••• Semana Santa procession in Leon, Spain. Wendy Pan/Creative Commons

Semana Santa (or Holy Week) is the Spanish name for Easter. It dates back to the 16th century when the Church decided to present the story of the Passion of Christ in a way that the layperson could understand. It was decided that the best way to do this would be a series of processions through the streets, depicting scenes from the story of the fall and rise again of Jesus Christ.

Where is Semana Santa at its best?

Full article: Semana Santa - Which City Is Best?

Semana Santa is at its most Catholically extravagant in Andalusia, in particular in Seville but also in Malaga. Usually tourists are recommended to go to one of these cities to Semana Santa in all of its pomp and glory. However, there are problems. For a start, hotels are booked out for months (in some occasions, years) in advance. Secondly, any Spaniard who is not from Andalusia will tell you that Andalusia's version is not the true Semana Santa. They will tell you that the true Semana Santa is in the region of Castilla-Leon - in particular Zamora and Valladolid, but also in Salamanca, Avila and Segovia.

Toledo is also a major focal point for Semana Santa. It is also the nearest Semana Santa city to Madrid, which means it is possible to take a day trip to sample the events of Semana Santa in Toledo. If you don't like it, duck back into Madrid, a city which remains relatively free of Semana Santa.

Basing yourself in Madrid also gives you the opportunity to take day trips to Segovia, Avila and possibly Salamanca. Read more on Day Trips from Madrid.

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What can I expect to see?

Though the style and mood of Semana Santa in Spain varies from city to city, the basic components remain the same.

Each day there is a number of processions, one from each brotherhood in the city, made up of floats which are carried from their church to the cathedral and back again. Most brotherhoods carry two floats, one with Christ and one with his mourning mother, Mary the Virgin.

Each procession is different and each one has its own particular followers, either due to the location of the church or the exact nature of the procession (the presence of or type of music, the time of day, etc).

The floats are heavy, especially so in Andalusia, which is the most extravagant region for Semana Santa. Strong men carry the floats, but with the procession lasting many hours, even they will feel the pain. The suffering experienced is likened to that experienced by Christ and the men (known as costaleros) consider it a great honor to carry the float, despite (and indeed, because of) the pain involved.

When is Semana Santa?

See also: Semana Santa Dates

In Andalusia Semana starts on the Sunday before Easter and lasts until Easter Sunday itself, while in Castilla-Leon events run from the Friday before, making ten days of events. In Toledo, Semana Santa celebrations are even longer, starting on the Thursday two weeks before Semana Santa itself.

To maximize your Semana Santa experience, taking in the most cities over the most days, you should start in Toledo, which is where the events get going earliest, before taking in Viernes de Dolores and Sabado Pasión in Castilla-Leon and then head to Andalusia for the main show.

When do the majority of activities take place?

The timing of Semana Santa processions varies. There are fewer processions in, say, Toledo than Seville.

The events from Thursday evening never really stop, with processions from Thursday night (the early hours of Friday morning) until Friday evening. Unless you have an excellent capacity to drink large quantities of coffee, you'll have to miss some of it to get a little beauty sleep. The events of Thursday night/Friday morning are the most important, so plan your sleep around this fact.

The mass of Easter Sunday, the last day of Semana Santa, is also important. The hoods that have been worn throughout the week to signify mourning at the death of Jesus Christ, are taken off to celebrate the resurrection. (It should be noted that the hoods have nothing to do with the Ku Klux Klan, to which they are so often compared. It is said that early KKK members saw the Semana Santa celebrations and adopted the costume, so impressed were they by the effect the design had on onlookers.)

What if it rains?

Semana Santa is an outdoor event - rain is bad news. With many of the floats very old and easily damaged, processions are called off with even the slightest drop of rain. Those involved are bitterly disappointed - they've waited all year for this. If rain is forecast, stay away, there'll be nothing to see.

What is a saeta?

A saeta is an element of Semana Santa particular to Andalusia and specifically Seville. It is an outburst of flamenco song, sung from one of the balconies in the narrow streets of the city. In times gone by they were spontaneous, the singer so overcome with emotion that only a flourish of flamenco will be enough to convey their emotions. Today, they are invariably preplanned. The procession will stop and listen to the song until it is over.