Semana Santa

Elaborately braided palms on Domingo de Ramos

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when life in a new place just becomes life. For me the epiphany has occurred when I come back to Spain from trips other countries, and breathe a sigh of relief to be back home – because it feels suspiciously like home. Obviously I am still a guiri, and a thousand little contrasts show it (I haven’t found the unspoken but unanimously adhered to schedule for what date it’s okay to wear short sleeves or a skirt without tights, or just how sunny it can be out before you leave the house without a scarf.) In the streets waiters and strangers speak English at my American face. But the overwhelming feeling of otherness has faded. Routines have normalized. Several months ago I still was a little baffled when Spanish camareros brought a knife and fork with a croissant. Now if I order a croissant with my coffee and it doesn’t come with silverware, I feel a little affronted – what am I, a savage?

All the same, at the back of my mind I am aware of the contrasts, as I begin to pull together details for what my life will look like in the coming year. I already am aching at the thought of going home (although home has begun to waver and shift) and leaving behind little things here: the glint of the sea on my morning commute, the ability to sit down and drink a coffee slowly with coworkers in the middle of the school day.

And just as life in Spain feels normal, Semana Santa happens.

Semana Santa is Holy Week – the week that begins on Palm Sunday with the celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, tracing the trajectory of his last supper, condemnation, crucifixion and burial, and to his resurrection on Easter Sunday. I am no stranger to Holy Week. My family was very involved in our church while I was growing up – a small Catholic parish down the street from our house. My family was in charge of opening and closing the church every morning and evening, and through high school I was involved with the daily life of the parish: serving at mass, watering flowers, ironing altar cloths. Holy Week was my favorite part of the Catholic year. The transformation of the somber austerity of Good Friday to the explosion of light and music and flowers at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night was magical, even after I was involved in the behind-the-scenes logistics.

Here in Spain, each day of Semana Santa is marked by processions. I had heard about these and seen photos of the large swaying pasos and the nazarenos with their pointed hoods which our American eyes are never quite prepared for. I also wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer volume of processions – shutting down traffic for the week, trailing through the street at nearly every hour of the day and night. Getting home from work or to the grocery store was often interrupted by the Virgin and her branching candelabras, and Cristo Sangriente woke me up at 1 am with trumpets beneath my balcony.

The things that go bump in the night…

Throughout Alicante, the huge, heavy doors of the cathedrals and churches are thrown open. For months I have passed these doors looming in the narrow streets of the old barrio, closed tight against Alicante’s less-than-holy weekends. Now, precariously swaying masses of saints and candles process through them, leaving or returning to the places where they will lurk until next year.

The superfluously gigantic doors make sense now.

The focal point of these processions are the pasos – depictions of key players and important scenes in the Passion narrative, beginning with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

This was in nearby Elche, an appropriate destination for Palm Sunday since it is famous for its palm trees.

Throughout the week, further pasos – which means steps in Spanish – depict scenes leading to the crucifixion: Jesus being condemned, carrying his cross, on it, removed from it. Like the narratives in churches’ stained glass windows, this was a very sensory way to tell the important stories of Christianity to the young, the illiterate, or just the visual and tactile.

His grieving mother also appears in many forms, most of them (beautiful) fire hazards.

These massive platforms – weighed down with flowers, candles, and beyond – are carried by costeleras. Like the other players in the processions, their participation is a grueling but respected position that is passed through generations of families who are part of the confraternities connected to each paso. Holy Week is not easy for them – they carry the pasos for hours on end, often stopping and – at the signal of a bell – lifting them up above their heads in unison as the crowd applauds, perhaps feeling (as I did) a sympathetic ache in their shoulders.

(The costaleras are not always visible at first.)

Other participants are the nazarenos, whose pointed hoods look terrifyingly similar to certain violent and racist participants in American history (although there is actually no connection.)

See? Not creepy at all.

The nazarenos accompany the procession: carrying candles, carrying various religious artifacts, and (interestingly enough) carrying candy somewhere within their flowing robes. They pass this out silently to bystanders. (Perhaps this gives children a reason to anticipate their otherwise creepy appearance, or perhaps motivation to accompany their parents to very long processions.)

Handing out caramelos.

One of my students described to me what it is like to watch the processions, and to see one of these mysterious hooded figures nod in a quiet salute, signaling that there is some familiar face beneath the hood – a family friend? a neighbor? (It could be anyone. It’s a small city; everyone is familiar.) He and the other students who mentioned the processions to me always seemed excited, eager to hear what I had seen of these events which seem so foreign to me, but which are part of a yearly twirl of seasons for my students.

A handy window display displaying each nazareno’s colors as determined by their particular paso.

Between the nazarenos and the pasos walk women of every age – perhaps several generations in the same confraternity – dressed like old time widows in traditional mantillas (and the occasional impressively high pair of heels.)

These women carry candles and symbols of the passion – heavy nails, a crown of thorns.

Even if it is possible to get tired of watching all this culture pass by (and yes… it is), even elsewhere the music follows you. It’s not like the somber music I would have expected, more like a parade than a funeral.

Hours of music takes its toll on a drummer’s fingers.

Sometimes the music isn’t all that follows you home. I could see some processions in their entirety just by sticking my head out my bedroom window.


Here in Spain I have been trying to figure out the connection between Spain today and the Catholic religion. Although the country is still full of churches, ties all its holidays solely to Christian feasts, and has Catholic Religion classes in public schools (although parents can opt out now), so far I haven’t met even one person who goes to church weekly or even frequently. And despite the fact that here the church and state are certainly connected, I haven’t seen the same ugly polarized political battles that many discussions of religion seem to spark back home in the United States. From what I’ve seen, the Spanish people view the Catholic faith as something cultural and spiritual, not as something political. I’m sure that there are many people who participate in the Semana Santa processions with true religious fervor. Looking up through a cloud of incense and flowers at silent figures surrounded by candles is impressive, regardless of your level of religious piety. For those who I have observed or talked to, the excitement of observing and participating in the Semana Santa events may or may not have a lot to do with religious belief. Like so many other things here in Alicante, it is also a chance to meet up with family and friends, take to the street en masse, eat, drink, socialize and fiesta as only Spain can.

The crucifixion plus a burger truck.

Another kind of truck to take a paso home until next year (a more efficient transport than the now exhausted costaleras.)


Edit: Some video to go along with it:


One Response to Semana Santa

  1. Mama says:


    This is an amazing view through your window on Spain. Thanks for taking the time to share it in such incredible & vivid detail! I love the way that every sense is involved in the Spanish Holy Week- it’s the same wonder, on a much much grander scale, that catches me every year in our own Triduum celebrations. Darkness, light, incense, song, silence, procession….. Your account makes me want to experience it in Spain!

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