With more than 70% of Spain’s population identifying themselves as Catholic, Pascua (Easter) is Spain’s most celebrated holiday.
Almost every Spaniard will take part in the festivities in some way.
During Semana Santa, the entire country is transformed. The holiday is a celebration of life itself and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who come to see the magic firsthand.
It is important for Spanish language learners to remember that culture is a crucial component of the language learning process. To truly master a language, you must also understand the culture upon which it stands.
That is why we’ve put together this great guide—so you can learn about all the cultural and linguistic details related to Semana Santa.
The Spanish Learner’s Complete Guide to Easter in Spain
What Is Easter Like in Spain?
Semana Santa is the largest and most revered religious celebration of the year in Spain.
It begins on Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) and ends with Lunes de Pascua (Easter Monday). Pascua itself falls one week after Domingo de Ramos and the day before Lunes de Pascua. Some parts of the country complete their celebrations before this Monday.
In pretty much every part of the country, celebrations begin on the morning of Domingo de Ramos when people go to church carrying a palm or olive branch to be blessed by el sacerdote (the priest) in honor of the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem and had palm leaves laid at his feet by the people. Boys will typically carry a plain branch while girls will carry one decorated with ribbons and sweets.
Street parades known as Procesiones (processions) typically begin on Palm Sunday and often take place every night during Semana Santa and can last until wee hours of the morning. In major cities, the processions are huge and can sometimes stretch for miles.
Participants typically carry pasos, large floats adorned with religious sculptures of Mary and Jesus and dressed with flowers, candles, gold, silver and fine fabrics. Many of the pasos have been owned and preserved by the cofradías (brotherhoods) for hundreds of years.
The floats are carried by men known as costaleros. They carry the floats on their shoulders and neck, which are cushioned by el costal (a special head scarf). A fabric is draped around the float, hiding the men underneath so it appears to be gliding along the road. Because the floats are so heavy and difficult to carry, los costaleros will rehearse for months to ensure they have proper rhythm and speed. You may also hear people singing songs called las saetas, special Easter songs sung a cappella, without any music.
On el Jueves Santo (Maundy Thursday), all of the church bells are tied up so they will not be rung again until el Domingo de Resurrección (Easter Sunday). Easter Sunday is a day of celebration and joy as the country remembers the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the last day of this week, Lunes de Pascua, picnics are popular as many families choose to spend the day outdoors.
The History of Easter in Spain
Semana Santa in Spain dates back to at least the 16th century when the church wanted to present the story of the Passion of the Christ in a way that the average person could understand. They decided that the best way to do this would be to have processions in the street. Still, some celebrations took place centuries earlier. One of the oldest Semana Santa celebrations in Spain takes place in Salamanca, with the earliest penance procession taking place in the year 1240.
Spanish Easter Cuisine
Meat is not eaten and dishes made of vegetables and fish are consumed instead. Popular Good Friday dishes include potaje de vigilia, a stew made with spinach, chickpeas and cod as well as sopa de ajo (garlic soup).
Torrijas, bread soaked in milk and egg, fried in olive oil, and served with milk and honey, are a traditional food served throughout the country during holy week. Another traditional Easter dish is the pestiño, a fritter made from a flour mixture, fried in olive oil and sprinkled with honey, sugar and sometimes sesame.
Cake is also a traditional part of the Semana Santa celebration. The most popular Easter cake is known as la mona de Pascua and is decorated with chocolate figurines and colored feathers. Traditionally, godparents will give these cakes to their godchildren as gifts on el Domingo de Resurrección.
People who take part in the ritualistic celebrations of Easter in Spain typically dress in traditional clothing.
Those who are doing penance will wear capirotes, tall conical hats that cover the face along with belted robes. Veils cover their faces so they will not be recognized as sinners, since this is symbolic of seeking atonement for the sins. The hoods are taken off on el Domingo de Resurrección to symbolize the resurrection of Christ.
Sometimes the people will walk barefoot or have chains around their ankles so that their discomfort may remind them of how Jesus suffered. These people are referred to as los nazarenos. Although their dress appears similar to the Ku Klux Klan, they are in no way affiliated with the KKK.
Women often wear a black lace veil called a mantilla, worn high on the back of the head. Some cities such as Alicante have imposed dress codes on women taking part in the parade, forbidding wearing lipstick, mini-skirts, tight clothing and low-cut blouses.
Easter Celebrations Around Spain
While Easter processions around Spain have many similar customs and traditions, each is a bit unique in its approach to the holiday. Many of the cofradías compete to see who can put on the largest and most elaborate procession.
On el Domingo de Resurrección in Almadén de la Plata, rag and straw dolls representing various famous people are placed at different places throughout the village. At the end of the celebration, they are torn apart and the pieces are thrown into the air. A similar ritual takes place in Castilblanco de los Arroyos, except the dolls are set on fire rather than torn. The dolls are referred to as judas (Judas), named after the disciple who betrayed Christ.
Another unique celebration takes place every year on Maundy Sunday in Verges, Cataluña, a skeleton dance called La dansa de la mort takes place. The dance consists of two adults and three children dressed in skeleton costumes and dancing to a drum beat.
In Murcia, the float telling the story of la Última Cena (The Last Supper) is carried with real food on the table. After the procession, the men who carried the table sit down to eat the food in a ceremonial manner. In Cuenca, la Semana de Música Religiosa (Religious Music Week) festival—one of the oldest music festivals in Spain!—takes place during Semana Santa with concerts being held every day in historic buildings and cathedrals.
Sevilla is perhaps the most popular city to visit during Semana Santa, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists each year to see the processions. Nearly 70 cofradías take part in festivities, providing Sevilla with some of the most lavish and impressive processions.
Tips for Traveling to Spain During Easter
Semana Santa in Spain truly has to be experienced first hand to be fully appreciated. If you decide to travel to Spain during this time, here are some tips to make the most of your trip.
Arrange your accommodation well in advance
Accommodation during Semana Santa can be difficult to find and prices are often heavily inflated. Many people book up to a year in advance to ensure that they will have accommodation. You may also consider staying with a host family instead. Not only will you save on accommodation costs, but you will have more of a cultural experience.
Dress for the occasion
You will find that people dress formally during these festivities. You will see most men sporting suits and ties even in the hottest of weather. If you want to blend in and show respect their traditions, dress as if you are going to a Sunday mass. Remember, women usually dress modestly.
Be on the lookout for pickpockets
Because the streets are crowded with people, you do have to worry a little more about pickpockets. Spain is generally a safe place for tourists. But it never hurts to take caution. Be mindful of your surroundings and keep a close eye on your belongings.
Understand some tourist attractions may be closed
Because it is a holiday, some tourist attractions will close their doors during this time of the year. If there is a certain attraction you are just dying to see, then it is best to do some research and know what their holiday operating hours are. You may want to come to Spain a few days before this week of celebration starts or stay an extra week to do some sightseeing.
Consider visiting multiple cities during the week
To maximize your experience, consider creating an itinerary where you can visit more than one city during the week. Do some research and find out which celebrations you just cannot miss and add them to your list of stops. If you are not sure where to visit, there are many travel agencies who can help you.
More than anything else, be respectful. Understand that Pascua is a highly revered holiday in Spain and that people take their traditions seriously. Even if you do not share their religious beliefs, hold their rituals sacred. For example, certain aspects of the celebrations are meant to be held in silence. So just be quiet and watch!
That is all you need to know for this wonderful week.
If you have the good fortune to be in Spain at this time of year, enjoy it to the fullest.
Oh, and let us know how it goes for you!
Brittany Tackett, MA is a freelance writer, tutor, transformational life coach, world traveler and Spanish language enthusiast. She took her first Spanish course at the age of 14 and has been fascinated with the language and culture ever since. Learn more about Brittany and her services by visiting her website.
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