Holy Week - Semana Santa

Holy Week in the Village of Rota

Semana Santa in Jerez

Right around February, in the town of El Puerto de Santa Maria, and then in other neighboring towns, I saw a few young men working out with cement sacks, they were wearing what looked like towels on their heads.  The sacks were on their shoulders, other sacks were over their heads, some men were also pulling a cart with more cement sacks. They were everywhere! I was walking back home after dinner one night, and there they were. Night after night, I saw the same thing. Then I forgot all about it, and 
Semana Santa arrived.  I remembered the men with the cement sacks, they were preparing for Holy Week.

Getting in shape for the real thing

As you probably know, Semana Santa, it is a week long festivity full of beautifully orchestrated marches recreating the Passion of Christ, with life size statues of Christ and the Virgin. Even if you are not Christian, it is a sight to see.

The first procession of the week is "La Borriquita" just for children
on Palm Sunday, El Puerto de Santa Maria
All the participants are dressed in colorful long robes, on their heads, pointy hoods with covered faces.  Each color, represent different brotherhoods, and each one is in charge of one stage in the Passion of Christ.  Most members have belonged to their brotherhoods for generations, passed down from father to son. 

Girls waiting for the procession.

Future Nazareno. Adorable.

Some processions take place during the day, while others are out marching all night. People from all over Spain travel to Andalusia to see them. The most famous ones are in the big cities like Seville, Granada, Málaga, Córdoba.  Hotels with the best views and balconies are booked months in advanced. The streets get really crowded, but if you don't want to leave the comfort of your home, the local television has enough TV coverage for folks that don't want to miss one single detail. Some narrators will walk you through the entire procession, as if it were a soccer match. 

Hermandad del Olivo, with their electric blue hoods.
One of the biggest in El Puerto de Santa Maria

The majority of towns and villages have processions too, just in a smaller scale. I have visited the ones in Rota, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Sevilla and Jerez de la Frontera. They are all unique and beautiful.

Hermandad del Olivo, El Puerto de Santa Maria

In order to understand a little about what the locals say about Semana Santa, here is a basic vocabulary (by no means official, this is my interpretation):

Nazarenos: are the brothers that walk side by side and keep the procession company. They carry candles, sticks, canes, flags and other religious symbols

Cofradías: it is the organization that organizes all the different brotherhoods and their processions, and everything related to it.

Paso: In some places it's also called throne, and it is the ornamented base in which the sacred images are carried and transported throughout the procession.

Costaleros: are the men that carry the Paso during the procession. In many cases you cannot even see them, just their feet under the Paso, like a giant centipede. In Málaga, for example, the Paso is huge, with long beams supporting the throne, and the costaleros, sometimes up to 250 men carry the Trono, and are quite visible.

Mantilla: it is the black veil and black outfit fitted with a large comb that symbolizes morning, which women wear while accompanying the Paso. Malaga province has one of the biggest assembly of Mantillas in Andalusia.

Peineta or Teja: large comb that is placed at the back of a woman's head and supports and displays the mantilla.

Capirote: the conical shaped hat, that was used to ridicule offenders or the church, but now represents penance for sins committed.

Cirio: large Candle. 

Recorrido oficial: the official route, with time, days and streets. This is really well coordinated and they stick to the schedule, because if they don't, other processions are delayed, and late one's may even my get fined. If you know the official route, you can choose where you want to see the procession.

Costalero with head dress in Rota

Cristo de la Expiración in Jerez, has a unique dress code, black velvet.

During my first procession here in Andalusia, I could not stop taking pictures, I don’t know what was more interesting, the swaying of the Virgin covered in flowers and golden robe, or the dozens of feet underneath the statue’s Paso, moving in unison like a giant centipede. Wherever you look and turn, there is something wonderful to photograph and experience, so keep your eyes open.

Under the Paso, a Human Centipede

The band, is professional and the best get hired
by many towns to play during the processions.

At the front and following the procession, are the bands.  They play typical Semana Santa music, with drums and trumpet in a steady beat to keep the feet below in perfect sync. With a swish, swash, swish, swash, the Virgin and Christ move along. There are rest intervals, the music stops, the feet stop, the Virgin and Christ are lowered, this is an excellent time to take pictures. The costaleros under the float change places with others that are well rested.  The Nazarenos (with robes), and men in suits following the procession, all wear their brotherhood's medals with colorful cords.  Many Nazarenos also carry Cirios (candles) as tall as them. Children approach them, they want some of the wax that drips off the candles. The children bring balls made out of aluminum foil, they reach up to the candles to catch the drippings, and slowly the melted wax covers the ball.  By the time Holy Week is over, children have accumulated huge wax balls with different colored wax.

by the end of the week, children have a huge wax ball
 made of different colors, depending on how many processions they have watched.

As a tourist, it is better to check at the tourism office for the official route of the procession, maybe even get a souvenir poster. Many bars and tobacco stands carry little flyers with the week’s processions schedule, it lists the date and time of processions, but ultimately the weather is the one that dictates if the procession parades the town or not. You see, the Virgin’s dress is sewn with precious metals and stones, and a drop of water can ruin the dress forever. If the weather doesn't cooperate, television crew and people in the background begin asking “¿Sale o no sale la Macarena?", “Will the Virgin go out today or not?” It hardly rains in Andalusia, but it is spring and the beginning of rainy season, so the possibility of canceling is high. If it happens, all the preparation and weeks of hard work put into it, go to waist, and it is very sad day for the brotherhood and it's followers.

Window decoration in Jerez with miniature procession

Window shopping during Holy Week is interesting; you’ll see that almost all the stores, have their windows decorated with miniature versions of their favorite procession. Some souvenir stores will sell you little hooded men with the brotherhood colors. School children in art class, will make little procession scenes out a tissue boxes to take home.

Specialized stores where you can order your "Capirote" to size.

My favorite night however, was in Jerez de la Frontera, south of Seville, where lots of great Gypsy artists and their families live. "Cristo del Prendimiento" is one the Gypsies favorite procession. It takes place at the church located in the gypsy quarter's of Santiago. “El Prendimiento” or just simply "El Prendi", it is the stage in which Christ is apprehended.  The procession lasts almost all night, and since Jerez is the birthplace of great singers, many want to honor their Christ with a song called Saeta.

El "Prendi"on Wednesday, in Jerez

This image of Christ in "el Prendi", has chains around his arms and legs, and looks in pain. The Saeta songs, are painful prayers offered by singers and by some people that, spontaneously, are moved to sing during the procession's rest, but mostly Saeta songs are heard at designated balconies. Saetas are very hard to sing because they are sung at cappella, and require great talent to sing them. Folks around here have singing competitions which require months of rehearsing. It is hard to explain what one feels, you have to be there, it will give you goose bumps. The most famous cantaores (singers) wait in a decorated balcony in town, with television cameras waiting to record the performance, so later everyone can relive.

Balcony view, everything is ready for the singer and his/her "Saeta".
San Miguel neighborhood. 


Saeta video

Good Thursday and Friday of Holy Week, are the most serious days.  Folks dress in dark colors, and men wear suits and ties. Now the procession turns into a funeral, one should be respectful. Some women following the procession choose to wear mantilla and peineta.  Until "Jueves Santo", Holy Thursday, these women dress in black and on their heads the mantilla and comb, but allow some of the hair to show, likes bangs, for example, but if it is Good Friday, all the hair should be covered by the mantilla.  There is a proper way to wear a mantilla, impossible to do it alone, and it's better to leave it to an expert or hair dresser to adjust the mantilla in the proper form.  And hardly ever used today, during Resurrection/Easter, women would wear a white or ivory mantilla.

Not as common as a feria dress,
but some women like to wear a "mantilla" during the procession

Painting of Raquel de Meller wearing
 mantilla and peineta
by Julio Torres

Semana Santa lovers, follow the processions as long as it takes, many watch until the last moment in which the sacred image enters the temple.  One thing that really surprised me, was the "bowing" of the Virgin.  In the following video in the town of El Puerto de Santa Maria, the Virgin is turned around and "bows" to the crowd (runs quickly outside and then back in) and everybody claps. 

Virgins thanks the public -Video

Times have changed,  there could be
 a woman under the hood and tunic

Jerez de la Frontera's Cathedral 

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