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SPANISH TRADITIONS

The essential guide to Easter in Spain in 2022

While the mesmerising processions of Semana Santa may have been cancelled during the height of the pandemic, this year they're back. Here's why Easter is so important in Spain, how it's celebrated and the Covid restrictions in place.

The essential guide to Easter in Spain in 2022
An Easter procession in Palma de Mallorca. Photo: AFP

In 2022, Easter in Spain runs from April 10th to April 17th, with Good Friday (April 15th) a national holiday and Thursday (April 14th) a regional holiday in many autonomous communities.

Why is Easter such a big deal in Spain?

Holy Week (Semana Santa) is the biggest religious celebration of the year in Spain, which means public holidays, a good deal of eating and drinking and lots of processions. Easter is a time for Spaniards to take to the streets and watch elaborate reenactments of the Passion, as well as enjoy some time off work in the company of their families and friends. 

What happens during Semana Santa?

Elaborate processions take place throughout Holy Week. Associations known as cofradías or ‘brotherhoods’ (whose members take part in the processions) are a strong tradition in Spain, with many dating back to the Middle Ages.

Semana Santa processions are also known as ‘penance processions’ and involve members of the brotherhood (nazarenos) parading from their church to the city’s cathedral.

To spot the start of a procession, look out for the giant cross that is always carried at the front.

Music also plays an important part in Semana Santa processions – most are accompanied by live marching bands that play religious music.

What are they wearing?

The Salud brotherhood procession in Málaga on Palm Sunday 2015. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

People taking part in Semana Santa processions dress in traditional capirote – the tall conical hat which also covers their faces, as well as in belted robes. 

Capirotes used to be reserved for people doing penance: as a sign of atoning their sins, they would walk through the town wearing the hat, their faces covered so they could not be recognized as sinners. 

Although strikingly similar, they have nothing to do with the hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan.

READ MORE: Spain’s Easter white hoods are a symbol of penance, not of right-wing extremism

Women often wear the mantilla, a black lace veil worn high on the back of the head, and have strict costume rules to adhere to. 

What are they carrying?

The Palm Sunday procession in Zamora. Photo: Antramir/Flickr

In most Easter processions, participants carry large floats, or pasos, that are adorned with religious sculptures depicting Jesus or Mary, some by renowned Spanish artists. The floats are festooned with flowers and candles and are the focal point of the procession. Many brotherhoods have owned and preserved their pasos for hundreds of years.

Where are the best places to spend Easter in Spain?

For glamour…

If you are after the most glamorous and ornate Semana Santa parades, look no further than Andalusia, especially the cities of Seville, Granada and Málaga. The region’s flamenco heritage seeps into its Easter celebrations, making for a fest like no other in Spain and one that attracts the most tourists.

Seville holds some of the biggest Holy Week processions including La Madrugá (dawn), a series of processions that take place during the night of Maundy Thursday and into the morning of Good Friday, a highlight of Semana Santa for many spectators. Listen out for the saetas, or bursts of flamenco from people on balconies along the procession route who are so moved by the spectacle they have to express their lament. 

Women wearing the traditional mantilla during Semana Santa in Seville. Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP

In Málaga, giant tronos, or thrones, are carried through the streets by members of brotherhoods dressed in long purple robes and followed by women dressed in black and wearing the typical mantilla, or lace veil. There is a real festival atmosphere in the city during Holy Week, much livelier than some of the more sombre celebrations in Spain’s northern towns and cities. 

For history…

Celebrations in the central region of Castille La Mancha are famous for their more sombre and, some would say, authentic Semana Santa parades.

A holy week procession in Zamora, 2014. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP

Zamora (pictured above) lays claim to the oldest Semana Santa celebrations in Spain, which date back to 1179. The city, close to the Portuguese border, sees its population increase five times during Holy Week, as up to 300,000 people flock to watch the ancient traditions.

Salamanca also holds Holy Week fests that date back hundreds of years, with the earliest penance processions recorded as far back as 1240. More than 20 brotherhoods organise 16 processions against the beautiful backdrop of the UNESCO World Heritage Site city.

For art…

Valladolid’s processions are renowned for their pasos (floats) which carry religious statues dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The city’s National Sculpture Museum donates over 100 images to be used during the processions, making it one of Spain’s most artistic parades.

Be aware, not everywhere celebrates Semana Santa with the same enthusiasm. In Catalonia for example, big processions are not common. You may only find one or two smaller ones, instead of the long ones that occur every day of Holy Week in Andalusia. 

READ ALSO: Seven surprisingly weird traditions celebrated at Easter in Spain

What do the Spanish eat?

While chocolate Easter eggs are becoming more and more popular, they are not traditionally a big part of Easter celebrations in Spain. But that’s not to say Spaniards don’t have special sweet treats for Holy Week.

Torrijas are a traditional Semana Santa sweet snack of bread soaked in milk and egg before being fried and served with sugar or honey, and are available all over the country during Holy Week.

Pestiños are little pastries popular throughout Spain, but especially in Andalusia. Sesame-flavoured dough is fried then glazed with honey or sugar. 

In Catalonia and Valencia regions, monas de Pascua are traditional – Easter cakes complete with hard-boiled or chocolate eggs. 

Discover what other mouth-watering Easter treats you find in Spain here

Will there be any Covid-19 restrictions this year?

Most restrictions have now been relaxed across Spain and they are not expected to be tightened again before Easter, however as we have seen, the pandemic has been very unpredictable. 

Each region has slightly different Covid-19 rules, meaning that it could depend on where you are in Spain, however restrictions are expected to be limited. 

The Ministry of Health has advised that distances are kept between people in the parades and that spectators are spaced out as much as possible, particularly when people are eating, drinking or smoking. 

One of the main restrictions that may be enforced is the use of masks in situations where distances between people can’t be maintained. For example, the Minister of Health and Families of the Andalusian government, Jesús Aguirre, has said that citizens must wear masks when they are in crowds. 

What will the weather be like? 

Spaniards will tell you “it always rains in Semana Santa” but as March already saw a lot of rain across Spain and Easter falls in the middle of April this year, it’s more likely to be fine during the parades. But you never know! So check the forecast and if there is even the slightest chance of rain, make sure to carry an umbrella.

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‘We’re strong enough’: Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain's famous Semana Santa processions 30 years ago, female "costaleros" - as float bearers are known - remain a minority who still face resistance.

'We're strong enough': Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

On Holy Monday in the historic city of Granada in southern Spain, a team of 50 women rock rhythmically from foot to foot carrying a 1.5-tonne float topped with a statue of Jesus and Mary.

They support the weight on wooden ribs under the belly of the float as they inch forward through the city for ten hours.

A heavy velvet cloth draped over the float leaves only their white shoes visible to throngs of spectators lining the route.

The parades featuring dozens of people dressed in religious tunics and distinctive pointy hoods have returned this Holy Week after being cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic the past two years.

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain’s famous Easter processions 30 years ago, female “costaleros” — as float bearers are known — remain a minority who still face resistance.

Women have traditionally formed the back line of the processions, playing the role of mourners dressed in stylish black dresses, embroidered veils and intricately designed hair combs.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

At first “it was not accepted, women were talked bad about,” said Pilar del Carpio, a 45-year-old cashier who has been a shrine bearer since she was 13 and is proud to be one of the “pioneers”.

Today only three or four of Granada’s 30 brotherhoods, which stage the processions, include women costaleras.

“Maybe there are people who think it is not normal,” said Maria Auxiliadora Canca, a 40-year driving instructor who directs a team of float bearers in Ronda, another Andalusia city in southern Spain.

“Since our bodies are capable of doing it, and we do it with conviction, I don’t see why there should be a difference.”

‘Scandal’

But in Seville, which holds Spain’s most spectacular Easter parades, there are no women float bearers even though the city’s archbishop in 2011 issued a decree to put an end to gender-based discrimination in the city’s religious orders.

Opponents claim the task is too physically demanding, “not suitable” for women.

“It’s a scandal,” said Maribel Tortosa, 23, who manages an Instagram account called “Costaleras por Sevilla” dedicated to women float bearers.

People say that it is “ugly” to see a woman wearing a “costal”, the traditional padded sack used by bearers as protective headgear, she said.

Two female float bearers “Costaleras” of the “Trabajo y Luz” (Work and Light) brotherhood hug each other after ten arduous hours of heavy lifting. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

“But under a float, you don’t see anything,” she added.

Still, the emergence of women float bearers reflects the growing push by women in Spain into traditionally male-dominated fields since the return of democracy in the 1970s.

Spain’s oldest police force, the Guardia Civil, has since 2020 been headed by a woman — a first in its 178-year history.

And since Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez came to power in 2018, women have taken up most cabinet posts for the first time in history.

‘Strong enough’

In Granada, locals are no longer surprised to see women training on the streets in the lead up to Holy Week by lifting and carrying a float loaded with bricks.

The load “weighs more every hour”, even though the shrine bearers are replaced every half hour during the “Work and Light” brotherhood’s procession, which began Monday at four pm and ended at around one am, said Rafael Perez, who heads the team of women shrine bearers.

Working with women “changes absolutely nothing. I just have to treat them with more tenderness,” said Perez.

Among the women of this religious order was Montse Ríos, 47, who has been a bearer since she was 19 and who still feels “strong enough to go under”.

Her eldest daughter joined her this week under the float, while her youngest is a “pipera”, giving water to the procession participants.

“And we don’t lack that,” she added.

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