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Spain's Holy Week is a time of unity, humility and forgiveness

Updated: Apr 30

✦ There is more to Spain's Holy Week than a parade of people in pointy hats and solemn music. Many are often moved to tears experiencing the processions.

Spain's Holy Week is one of the most important festivals of the country, and many wait with bated breath to see the processions.

Meet the penitents

Easter, or Holy Week, is a big deal, especially in the south of Spain in Andalucia. Both Spaniards and foreigners flock to this region to witness the incredible processions. This is the time when you see the processions of the brotherhoods or fraternities (known as 'cofradías'). You typically see the use of the nazareno or penitential robe for people taking part in the processions. It consists of a tunic, a hood with a pointy tip which is used to hide the face of the wearer, and sometimes a cloak as well. These are the penitents, who take part in the procession to demonstrate their penance. Others carry heavy crosses and even walk the streets barefoot with chains on their feet.

Penitents during Semana Santa Holy Week Easter in Spain, Photo: Canva | Brilliant Online Australia Singapore UK | Brilliant Online

Meet the pasos

Each fraternity carries huge, elaborate 'floats' (called 'pasos' in Spanish) on their shoulders. These are nothing but light despite what we call them in English, because some weigh more than 5000kg, a weight which is impossible to even remotely imagine. Perhaps 'throne' is a more apt word than 'float' here. These pasos have sculptures of Christ or the Virgin Mary and are intricate art pieces. Some fraternities have owned these pasos for centuries, so they are more than just works of art. They are antiques, history and culture. For the heavy pasos, there are more than 250 members under each throne to carry them along the streets, accompanied by marching bands.

Pasos during Semana Santa Holy Week Easter in Spain,  Photo: Canva | Brilliant Online Australia Singapore UK | Brilliant Online
Some of the thrones or 'pasos' can weigh up to 5000kg!

A mystical experience

There is something mystically hypnotic about watching the swaying sea of hooded penitents marching slowly to the solemn rhythm of brass instruments and drums, with the scent of candle wax and incense in the air. It is one of the most soul-stirring celebrations of the country. It is not uncommon to see penitents and the crowds crying during this event. For many, it is their recognition of their Saviour who gave up his life for them. For others, it is the awareness, regret and penitence they feel at their own wrongdoings and gratitude for the forgiveness they have received. Some are moved by the humility and unity of undergoing the procession together as a fraternity. The pasos can only be lifted if they all work together, and no one is dispensable.

A feat of physical and spiritual strength

Being a penitent who carries these pasos is considered a lifetime honour and a sign of their devotion and penance. You need to train to be able to lift, move and lower it. Sometimes even on your knees. Doing crossfit at the gym once a week is not going to be enough. Bear in mind also that the penitents are not walking on smooth streets. Many are narrow and paved with cobblestones which makes balancing even more arduous. While these processions can be marathons as long as 8 hours, it doesn't mean the same group carries the pasos all the time! Before you balk, take comfort knowing that they do have shifts and take turns to do it.

Penitents moving in rhythm during Semana Santa Holy Week Easter in Spain,  Photo: Canva | Brilliant Online Australia Singapore UK | Brilliant Online
Not a step out of place

Kneeling in humility

Another challenge apart from the weight of the pasos is, some are so tall and the doors of the cathedral so low that getting the pasos out of the building is in itself already a feat of strength, precision, teamwork and extraordinary patience. The penitents have to kneel and shift the weight on their knees to get out of the building, every one of them holding up the immense weight of the paso on their shoulders.

Watch the rehearsals of how the paso named María Santísima del Dulce Nombre en su Soledad leaves the cathedral of San Pedro El Viejo in Madrid.

Interview with a young penitent

Meet Paula Malvido Soriano, a 21-year-old Spanish girl living in Madrid who felt called to participate in one of the Holy Week processions last year.

Paula, young Spanish penitent at Holy Week procession in Spain | Brilliant Online Australia Singapore UK | Brilliant Online
Paula at last year's Holy Week processions (Photo: Paula Malvido Soriano)

What made you decide to participate in the Holy Week processions?

I decided to join the Holy Week processions when I was 19 because I feel a very strong connection to my faith and I wanted to get fully into the religious traditions that have been present in my life since I was a child. Whenever I went to my town, I would see the processions and a part inside me felt that I wanted to be there. I felt it was a special way to show my devotion in a concrete way that was very important to me.

Did you have to receive any training or make any preparations for it?

Because I live in Madrid, it was impossible for me to attend the rehearsals and celebrations of my brotherhood, so I could not help in the preparations or "prepare myself". I put that in quotes because here in Madrid, I prepared myself by dedicating time to reflect on the spiritual meaning of the Holy Week for me personally.

How did you feel before and after the experience?

Before the experience, I was full of excitement and anticipation, but I was also slightly nervous about the responsibility that came with participating in such an important event. After the experience, I felt deeply moved and at peace, with a renewed sense of connection to my faith and to the community that shared this experience with me.

Do women participate in carrying the pasos? I know they are very heavy!

I don't know that information, in my fraternity specifically, women do not participate carrying the pasos. I think it has always been a tradition carried by men, but women do participate dressed like them, as was my case.

Holy Week pasos | Brilliant Online Australia Singapore UK | Brilliant Online
Holy Week 'pasos' or thrones (Photo: Paula Malvido Soriano)

Many people are moved to tears during the processions. Why do you think that happens?

I think the Holy Week processions are so moving because they give you a special place to think about what Jesus Christ suffered and sacrificed. The music, the pasos, all of that touches you deep down and makes you feel everything from sadness to hope and gratitude.

Is religion still something that young people are interested in? Were your friends surprised that you wanted to participate in the processions?

In my experience, I see that religion is still relevant to many young people, albeit in different ways. Some of my friends were initially surprised by my decision to participate in the processions, but in the end, they respected my choice, and some even showed interest in better understanding my motivations and experiences.

What was the most important thing for you in this Holy Week experience?

For me, the most important thing about this experience was feeling more connected to my faith and to the community of believers who shared this spiritual journey with me. Experiencing Holy Week in such a personal and participatory way allowed me to deepen my understanding of the meaning of these religious events and renew my commitment to my spiritual journey.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience during the procession?

Participating in the Holy Week processions was an experience that transformed my faith and my connection to the community of believers. I felt the presence of the divine in every step we took together and experienced a sense of peace and wholeness that I will carry with me long after the processions are over. It was a powerful reminder of the power of faith and communion to unite us in moments of reflection and celebration.

Thank you Paula for sharing your experiences with us!

If you can't be in Spain to witness the Holy Week processions, watch this beautiful short film that captures the essence of the sacredness and devotion during this time.

Thrones of Spain's Holy Week

If you are curious about what it feels like to be under the hood, watch this documentary where one of the penitents takes you on a journey of the Holy Week processions.

Who's under the hood?

Apart from the solemnity of the event, the Spaniards never forget to bring in a touch of culinary delight. Torrijas is a sweet treat commonly eaten during this time of the year. Check out the recipe for this lovely Spanish bread pudding below. 



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