While Americans and others may celebrate Easter only on a Sunday, that occasion is marked in Spain by an entire week of festivities known as Semana Santa, or Holy Week. The Holy Week festivals that take place all over the country are especially marked in Andalucia. Here, the emphasis is less on doleful repentance and more on the celebration of the central figures of Christianity.
The central feature of all those activities is the notable processions that take place in every town in the region. The times, participants and style vary considerably from town to town. But almost all have some common themes.
Typically, traffic is closed off to allow for the floats and the hundreds or sometimes even thousands of people that precede or follow them. The festival is marked by religious figures dressed in Church finery carrying candles and directing the parade. Encircled by them is the main focus of the event: the floats.
Every float is a unique and creative construction that contains a figure of Jesus, Mary or an important saint.
A small statue of Saint Rocco, for example, maybe held aloft on one platform, displaying his bare leg. He is regarded as a patron of the sick and the hopeful will often toss money onto the float, seeking relief or improvement.
Other floats will depict scenes from the Bible, early Christian stories, or any of a thousand different images that evoke memories of tales passed down through hundreds of generations. There is the Gitano del Polvorín, the Virgen de la Victoria and the Señor de Sevilla, among many more.
The processions, like the stories, are an ongoing tradition that has its origins in the early Middle Ages. As far back as 1,500 years ago the faithful annually walked with the platforms to celebrate the Annunciation, the Sermon on the Mount, the Rising from the Dead and other well-known scenes from the Bible.
For centuries – during the period Spain was ruled by Islamic Moors, Berbers, Arabs and others from North Africa – the festivals were forbidden. Not surprisingly, therefore, after the Reconquest by Christian kings and the re-establishment of Christianity in the country, the festivals started anew. They have been a regular event in Andalucia, with few interruptions, ever since.
But the natives are not the only participants. Church officials from Rome and elsewhere, along with people from around the world merely wanting to take part, celebrate the Holy Week festivals, too.
The celebrations ramp up a notch the final few days before Easter, making that an especially good time to visit in order to see or participate in Semana Santa. Musicians will play and sing as others carry banners, followed by Nazarenos dressed in tunics and masks.
Whether taking place in Cadiz or Cordoba, or any of the other dozens of cities large and small in Andalucia, the scene is similar. At the end of the procession, which often takes place from dusk to the following dawn, the float enters its individual sponsoring church and a hush comes over the crowd, signifying the culmination of Semana Santa.