One thing I’ve always wanted to do is witness Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) celebrations in Spain. But another year has passed and it still only remains a dream. Here’s hoping that 2011 will be my chance!
Semana Santa is, of course, the week leading up to Easter. It includes Palm Sunday (el Domingo de Ramos), Maundy Thursday (el Jueves Santo), Good Friday (el Viernes Santo), and Easter (la Pascua de Resurrección) itself. In Spain, as well as most other Spanish-speaking countries, this adds up to a celebration and festival season that rivals Christmas.
In particular, the week usually consists of a series of processions through the city. Each procession features incredibly impressive pasos, which are floats with highly realistic sculptures depicting the Passion (the final days and suffering of Jesus of Nazareth) and/or the grief of Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Each procession is organized by a particular brotherhood from a local church. These brotherhoods (hermandades or confradías) are lay organizations that are dedicated to performing acts of religious observance in public. In terms of Semana Santa, this means ritual penance for the Passion and death of Jesus.
A procession usually runs from the brotherhood’s home church to the city’s cathedral and might consist of…
*A large guiding cross (cruz de guía) that leads the procession.
*The nazarenos (more on them below).
*Penitentes (also nazarenos, but without the pointing hats) carrying wooden crosses as part of their public penance.
*Altar boys and acolytes with candles and incense.
All of this means there can be hundreds or more in a procession. And the procession itself can last as long as fourteen hours if the brotherhood is from an outlying neighborhood.
For an outsider, one of the more striking aspects about the processions are the nazarenos, the men (and even a few women) dressed in distinctive robes and conical hats. The nazarenos disguise themselves because they are doing penance and shouldn’t be recognized in public because of it. And the hats probably signify a focusing of energy and spirit pointed at heaven. But most of us folks from the US see their costumes and immediately think of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s unclear if the Klan lifted their design from nazarenos or not. Like the Nazis stealing the swastika from Asia, it would be a sick joke if that were the case. The Klan has always been a highly anti-Catholic movement, and Hispanics and Latinos are viciously targeted in their ideology.