Experiencing Semana Santa in Málaga, Spain

It's quite fascinating how changing plans can bring the best experiences.

When I started planning my trip to Spain together with my Mom, our first dates were for the long May weekend. The 1st and the 3rd of May are holidays in Poland so it is really easy to make a week-long vacation. Unfortunately, I was not the first who had this idea – it seems like all the flight companies knew very well it was a popular time for Polish tourists and the ticket prices were absolutely horrendous.

And so I quickly changed the dates for the Easter break. I am lucky to have a long break from school and my Mom could take some days off. The prices were much more acceptable and what is even better – I was excited to go during the Holy Week as I really wanted to see the famous Semana Santa celebrations.

I am not a Christian but I grew up in a Catholic country so I am pretty well versed in the basics of Easter celebrations. But nothing like Semana Santa happens anywhere in the world. The famous processions are unique to Spain and their history reaches centuries-old traditions.

What exactly is Semana Santa?

During the Holy Week, a number of brotherhoods and fraternities perform processions on the streets of major Spanish cities. The processions are religious and their nature is penance for sins in spiritual preparation for the upcoming holiday. In some places, the celebrations have been taken place for over five hundred years!

Although the processions take places in a variety of Spanish regions, Andalusian cities are known for the most prestigious. People flock to Seville, Málaga or Grenada to witness the alluring events.

What are the brotherhoods?

Some of the brotherhoods, or fraternities, were established in the Middle-Ages as religious groups. Some are much younger – there are even a few created in the recent century. It was a form of popular piety to join such groups. For some, it’s a part of family’s tradition to be a member (hermano) of such brotherhood.

What are they wearing?

One thing that definitely captures one’s attention, is the unique robes. Unfortunately, for many people nowadays the first connotation when seeing the conical hood is with the infamous Ku Klux Klan but we need to remember that there is nothing in common.

The robes, called nazareno, are worn by many (but not all) participants in the processions. The conical hood (capirote) covers the wearer’s face who also wears a tunic.

In the Middle Ages, through the streets of Christian Europe, flagellants marched to do penance. Inquisition mandated the use of capirotes during their tribunals – people who were accused had to wear them and their colors depended on their crime.

Modern marchers do not flagellate themselves, obviously, but the symbolic clothing is to bring the idea of shame for one’s sins and provoke others to repent.

Right in front of the thrones walk acolytes dressed in vestments. Some of them carry thuribles with incense and sometimes more candles - but this time, in beautiful candlesticks. Quite there are also children walking in front of the thrones - also dressed in vestments. 

What are they caring?

During every procession, people carry tronos – thrones or floats with scenes from the story of the Holy Week – depending on the day. The floats are huge and heavy – that’s why they are carried by many people. The biggest ones can weight up to 5 tons! People (most of them men) who carry them, walk very close to each other in a coordinated, solemn march, swaying a bit with each step. The thrones require 120 to even 270 people to carry them. 

The thrones are beautifully decorated and many of them have lit candles and flowers. The robes of Mary are made of silks and velvet, embroidered with gold and silver thread. 

Before each of the thrones walk acolytes with incense, adding the sound of silver chains to the louder bells signaling breaks or marching. Every now and then the throne stops and is lowered to the ground so the people who carry it can rest.

In addition to the thrones dedicated to the Christ and Virgin of Sorrow, there are smaller ritualistic items carried by various Nazarenos, related to the particular brotherhood. Witnesses can see an elaborately decorated emblem of the group, carried at the front of the procession. Later on, there is also a book of the order carried - a unique book of all the rules and history of the particular brotherhood. Many of the penitents carry huge candles and there is always a big cross carried at the very front of the procession. 

Friday and Sunday of the Semana Santa

As we came on Friday, the only processions we had a chance to witness were the Friday one and main procession on the Easter Day. There was none on Saturday. Both times we were lucky to get a pretty good spot, even though we had no tickets for chairs. I didn’t even check what the process of getting one was. It would be good to have them as it takes a while – my mother cannot stand for a long time and it was a bit challenging for her.

On Sunday, at noon, we were told by the ushers to sit on the chairs. I guess on the last day they didn’t even care much about tickets anymore. It was a lovely day and we had primary seats to see the processions.

Both times, in addition to the thrones and brotherhood members, there were also brass orchestras. Sometimes military orchestras and choirs take part in the processions. 

Friday procession, dedicated to the Resurrected Jesus, is a bit different to the other ones. Representatives of all other brotherhoods take part so it’s a very colorful group of people. There are booklets which guide one through it, helping you recognize each brotherhood by the colors of robes as well as emblems on their tunics.

Experiencing the Processions

As I said before, I’ve never had a chance to witness this particular way of celebrating Easter before. I’m Jewish and not religious so I was an outsider watching foreign rituals. What surprised me was how lightly some people were approaching the processions. I was expecting much more solemn and serious attitude, but people were relaxed and chatty.

They were talking with their friends while the processions walked by. Although everyone was standing up when the actual throne was carried by when the petitioners or an orchestra moved by, they were often ignored, and some people even crossed the road right in front of them. It surprised me as, coming from Poland, I expected a much rigid way of celebrating a Catholic ritual.

If you happen to come during the Semana Santa you need to be aware that the whole city center is closed for the celebrations. When we finished watching the procession we moved on, wandering through the streets in the general direction of our accommodation. But it was not an easy task to get there - we kept bumping into the procession farther down their route. Sometimes there are crossings established and the ushers let people move on the other side. But if one needs to get somewhere fast - it's better to go around the old city center. 

Be prepared for crowds - the streets are filled with people. All restaurants and cafes are filled with customers, often watching the passing them thrones sipping tinto de verano.   

Have you experienced Semana Santa in Spain?
What were your impressions?
Do you plan on seeing it one day?

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