Inside Semana Santa, One Of The World’s Strangest Easter Celebrations

Published March 24, 2016
Updated January 8, 2018

See the beautiful, mysterious traditions of Semana Santa, the annual commemoration of the Passion of the Christ.

On the Sunday before Easter, many Catholic countries begin celebrating Semana Santa, or Holy Week, an elaborate religious observance that will last until the day before Easter. Among the festival’s many rituals, the solemn street processions held in the main participating cities arrest the eye with their intimidating aesthetics and aura of mystery:

Procession Salamanca
In the Roman Catholic world, Semana Santa marks the commemoration of the Passion of Christ. The week-long holiday is dedicated to the remembrance of Biblical events, from Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem to his burial following the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Wikimedia Commons

Marbella Spain Cross
The festival takes place on the last week of Lent, just before Easter. It includes Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Flickr

Semana Santa Pictures
During Holy Week, religious brotherhoods and fraternities perform penance processions in the streets of observing cities as a spectacular expression of popular piety.Wikimedia Commons

Procession Malaga
Most of the Semana Santa traditions and brotherhoods have their origins in medieval times, although a number of them were created during the Baroque period and recent centuries. Flickr

Brotherhood Procession
Any Catholic person can become a member or “hermano,” but family tradition has a significant influence on the choice of, and acceptance into, one of the brotherhood circles. Flickr

Closeup Clothes
Most participants in the parades wear the traditional penitential robe, or nazareno. Flickr

Capirotes Valladolid
The shapes and colors of the garments vary according to the fraternity and procession, although purple is favored in a number of locations.Wikimedia Commons

Capirote Salamanca
The nazareno outfits involve a tunic and a long, conical hood with a pointy tip, called capirote or capuchon. Flickr

Capirote Closeup
In the Middle Ages, the dissimulating robes and masks allowed participants to show penance while concealing their identity. Flickr

Capirote Daimiel Spain
The hermanos often hold large crosses to recreate Christ’s ordeal. Flickr

Semana Santa Penitents
Penitents may also occasionally walk barefoot and wear chains or shackles around their ankles. Flickr

Semana Santa Procession
They are normally followed by women dressed in black who carry processional candles.Flickr

Procession Roman Soldiers
Other members of the processions dress up as soldiers of the Roman Legion. Wikimedia Commons

The fraternities carry giant floats with Biblical sculptures representing scenes of the Passion, called pasos, on their shoulders.Flickr

Float Salamanca Spain
Some of the pasos have belonged to the brotherhoods for centuries, and many are artworks created by renowned Spanish artists.Flickr

Procession Malaga Spain
In Spain, the largest and most famous Semana Santa processions are found in the cities of Cartagena, Málaga, Seville, Valladolid, Zamora, and Léon. Flickr

Semana Santa Catholic Tradition
The celebrations in 23 cities around Spain have been declared of international tourism interest, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Wikimedia Commons

Procession Bilbao
The region of Andalusia is known to host more “glamorous” processions, while those of Castile and Léon generally have a more somber atmosphere. Flickr

Procession Quito Ecuador
Outside Spain, Semana Santa is actively celebrated in Catholic European countries such as Italy, Portugal and Malta, and in Hispanic countries around the world, including those of South and Central America (pictured above: Quito, Ecuador) and the Philippines. Wikimedia Commons

Guatemala City, Semana Santa Procession
Men carrying a heavy paso float in Guatemala City. Flickr

In the Philippines, the proceedings take on an altogether more extreme and sinister turn: some participants engage in deep self-flagellation and actual cross nailings, despite those practices being condemned and banned by the

Next after learning about Semana Santa, discover the seven most unusual religious rituals and beliefs. Then, check out 17 incredible vintage Easter advertisements.

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