La Semana Santa, Holy Week, is an important holiday throughout Spain, but most of all in Andalucía. Thousands of people flock to Sevilla for the festivities, which is one of the reasons I took most of that week to travel to Portugal. However, I returned late Thursday before Good Friday and was in Sevilla through Easter so that I could get a taste of this revered cultural tradition.
Before I experienced it, I was somewhat indifferent to Semana Santa. I’m not a fan of crowds, particularly not tourists in the city that I’ve adopted as my own (Loud English-speaking tourists, go away, please). I’m also not Catholic, and watching a bunch of religious parades really did not sound like my cup of tea. But, like everything in life, you shouldn’t judge something that you know nothing about. I am glad I spent a good portion of the week traveling (because, ummm, Portugal), but I’m also happy that I returned to Sevilla for the most important part of their Holy Week celebrations, because it was actually more fun and interesting than I had expected.
The highlight of Semana Santa is los pasos, parades that different churches put on through the streets of Sevilla. There are so many that you have to have a map and schedule to trace the location of the ones you want to see. And so you don’t get trapped in a plaza between two pasos at 3 AM. That happened. In each paso, nazarenos, members of the church dressed in long robes with tall pointed hats and carrying candles almost as long as I am tall, begin the procession. Others carry flags or other artifacts from the church. Following hundreds, even thousands of nazarenos are huge alters with figures of the Virgen María and Jesú Cristo, covered with flowers and candles and unique to each church. Often, Mary is depicted as crying, and Christ is represented in his final moments—they don’t sugarcoat the suffering on the cross, that’s for sure. As you can guess from the photos, these alters are extremely heavy, and they are carried by many men underneath. Watching the men switch out was quite an ordeal; everyone must be perfectly in-sync heaving the burden onto their shoulders. Ouch.
I watched a few pasos during the day on Friday and Saturday, but the most interesting time to watch is Thursday night, called la Madrugá. La madrugá means “early morning” (technically it’s madrugada, but in Andalucía they drop the “d” and extend the “a” sound—thanks, phonetics professor). “Early morning” as in we started a little before midnight and got home around 6AM (and they were still going; we just needed sleep).
One reason that I preferred la Madrugá is that the candles show up better at night. But really what’s neat about la Madrugá is how passionate the people are about it. When la Virgen passes, a few people will call out, “Guapa,” meaning “beautiful one,” though this occurs more during the day. At night, when the Virgen or Cristo passes by, a huge crowd of Spaniards falls silent. It’s actually quite eerie, yet hauntingly beautiful how moved the people are by the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Even though many Spaniards are either nominally Catholic or secular, they continue to honor the traditions that bring together their family and communities and continue to be touched by the spiritual nature of these celebrations.
La Madrugá was so much fun, totally worth conquering our exhaustion from traveling home that afternoon (we slept well the next day, believe me). My roommates, Alayna and Emma, and I set off with a great app that showed us a map and schedule of the pasos, and fueled with café con leche, tea, and torrijo, the traditional Semana Santa pastry that is similar to French toast with honey, we battled the crowds for some up-close views. The most important pasos, our host mom told us, were Gran Poder (named after a major street), Esperanza de Triana (the patron Virgin of the Triana neighborhood), and Silencio (the one where you really, really have to be silent). We got to see all three and more, and we were so close to Gran Poder that we had to duck when the massive Virgen turned the corner.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed my little dose of Semana Santa in Sevilla. Even if it’s not something I’m personally into, it’s so cool getting to see people in their element, doing something they’re really passionate about. After all, I’m not here to find my comfort zone away from home. I’m here to immerse myself in the culture around me, to be uncomfortable, and to learn about different perspectives, and this was a perfect way to do just that.