Semana Santa in Andalucía is a truly exceptional week. Although it happens every year, the effect of the processions and the atmosphere they inspire in the cities, villages and towns of the area is always uniquely captivating. It is a time of wax stuck to the roads of a city. A time of late nights following crowds of people around a town. A time of crowds and rituals and most of all – tradition.
Even if you know a little about the general idea of Semana Santa and its fame in Spain, a lot of tourists don’t know much about the meaning behind the tradition. It has become a cultural phenomenon – but this was not what was originally intended.
History of Semana Santa in Andalucía
Dating back to the 16th Century, Semana Santa was a time for people to bring silenced Catholic values out into show for the public. The liturgy and meaning of the Church was promoted on the streets, through processions revealing the devotion of local Catholics. It happens during the Holy Week leading up to Easter, remembering the death of Jesus Christ.
It is difficult to separate Semana Santa into different categories, as the whole week is so complete and total in its oneness. The various elements harmonise and compliment each other to make this unique and special tradition. But to gain a better understanding of the meaning behind these seemingly abstract events, we have categorised the main features. Read on to find out more about the details of Semana Santa in Andalucía.
The pasos are the main event of Semana Santa. They are the reason people stand for hours and line the streets for miles. People plan their whole week around following the different daily processions. There is even an app giving live updates of where each one is.
“Nazarenos”, or penitents, are those that walk with the procession wearing traditional religious dress, sometimes barefoot and always walking in a slow and steady unison. People practice all year for the honour of carrying a float in the procession. Standing beneath the structure, men carry the float on their heads, using their shoulders for support, and walk slowly in unison. Throughout the year, they make it heavier and heavier until they are ready to carry the whole float during Semana Santa.
Made from combinations of wood, silver and gold, they carry life size statues of Jesus and Mary on top. These “Imagens” display different scenes from the Holy Week story, including Jesus’ trial and death on the cross. There are also many of Mary, usually surrounded by dozens of candles. Also covered in beautiful clothes and materials, the floats are covered by a small roof supported by four pillars.
The whole structure shakes backwards and forwards as the men carry it from beneath, but they stay surprisingly sturdy.
Like most Spanish festivals, Semana Santa is also famous for its food. There are numerous tastes and dishes associated to Holy Week and available in local shops and cafes only once a year. Torrijas are a typical Semana Santa delicacy. Made from egg dipped bread, soaked in milk, fried and covered with sugar and cinnamon, they are definitely worth a try for visitors to Andalucía at this time of year.
Due to the religious tradition of Catholics not eating meet during Holy Week, most cities also promote seafood dishes. Vegetarian dishes are often given more promotion too, including classic Spanish dishes like chickpeas with spinach, salmorejo (a cold tomato, bread and garlic soup) and tortilla.
But probably the most prominent of foods during Semana Santa in Andalucía are “Pipas”, also known as sunflower seeds. The outside cases of the seeds are scattered all around the streets. People sit on the side of the roads, waiting for the processions, and munch constantly on these, throwing the shells onto the ground. Walk through the streets during Semana Santa and notice the subtle sounds of cracking sunflower seeds. They are sold on every street corner and act as a random but fundamental tradition of Holy Week.
Although Semana Santa has become an interesting cultural event, drawing tourists from all over the world, it is predominantly a religious occasion. The local churches and Catholics treat the event with a serious, solemn and silent attitude. It is a time of public pride and many local parishes are involved. Members of the church process from their local church to the Cathedral and back.
The exact details and traditions differ from city to city. Seville and Malaga are two of the most elaborate displays. The floats are notably rich and elaborate. In Seville, there are 60 different religious brotherhoods and 2000 members involved in the processions. Indeed, the pasos of Seville are recorded live on Andalusian television throughout the week.
Cordoba offers a particularly beautiful Cathedral, located inside the world heritage site mosque in the historic centre of the city. The images of the pasos passing through this magnificent old building is an exceptional one.
The music is one of the most iconic features of Semana Santa. You can hear it in the distance from throughout the city. Unapologetically prominent, the slightly shrill sound of brass bands and heavy drumbeats declare the presence of the pasos. The bands of the procession are mainly bands of wind instruments, including especially loud trumpets. There are also sometimes choirs of voices singing in the more solemn moments of the week.
Some of the most special moments of Semana Santa in Andalucía, come from the spontaneous singing of members of the public. Called “Saeta”, these are passionate songs sung by devoted people declaring their faith. Usually sang soulfully and with a throaty, husky voice, they represent both religious faith and the spontaneity of Spanish culture.
Regardless of religious sentiments, tradition and personal beliefs, some things are for certain about Semana Santa. It inspires life and transformation into Andalusian cities for a special week once a year. It is a time of intense cultural appreciation, allowing for an exceptional experience Spain. At night, with the candles, music and many local people, these processions are beautiful and captivating – definitely worth a visit for any traveller.