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Holy Week in Spain

Sevilla, Spain

Every day of Holy Week comes with religious processions in Sevilla. Accompanied by hooded penitents, elaborate floats bearing statues of Mary or Jesus are carried on the shoulders of strong men walking to churches through narrow streets lined with crowds.

Complete Video Script

In Spain, Holy Week is called “Semana Santa.” It’s celebrated with unrivalled pageantry and emotion — most famously in Seville (or “Sevilla”). Here, Semana Santa is an epic event that stirs the soul and captivates all who participate.

On Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, families dressed up for this important day head into their parish church for Mass. Then, promenading with palm and olive branches, they make a loop through the neighborhood, eventually returning to their home church. Afterwards, they visit other churches throughout the city — each displaying elaborate floats.

Sevilla has many religious brotherhoods (or “fraternities”) that are entrusted with the care of venerable floats that carry statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary through the streets during Semana Santa.

Sevillanos hold a special place in their hearts for Mary. Floats with Mary evoke great emotions and remind them of the grieving mother who has lost her only son.

Every neighborhood church has its own unique Mary — all are the grieving mothers of the crucified Christ, but each one represents a different aspect of her sorrow. And there are other floats. This one, nicknamed “La Borriquita” (or “The Little Donkey”), depicts Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem.

La Borriquita leaves its church and begins its procession through the narrow streets. This marks the official start of Holy Week. From now on, every day until Easter Sunday, the city is enlivened with dozens of such processions. These ritual parades first filled the streets of Sevilla 400 years ago. They’re designed to present the story of the Passion — the death and resurrection of Jesus — in a way the average person could understand.

Today some 60 fraternities each make the journey on foot, carrying floats in processions like these from their parishes to the city’s cathedral and back. The journey, through miles of passionate crowds, can take up to 14 hours. Strongmen called “costaleros” work in shifts. As a team, they bear two tons of weight on the backs of their necks, an experience they consider a great honor despite — and indeed because of — the pain involved.

As the floats slowly make their way to the cathedral, moments of great passion occasionally bring everything to a standstill. Centuries of flamenco singers have serenaded Mary and Jesus with love songs as they process through the city. Traditionally spontaneous, these passionate songs occur when a singer is so overcome with emotion, he must break into song.

As dusk settles on Sevilla, a long line of silent, black-clad penitents escort one of the city’s most moving floats toward the cathedral. The float portrays the dead Jesus taken down from the cross and mourned by the people who loved him most. Among the most dramatic of the week’s processions, the float is decorated simply, with purple iris and a single red rose, symbolizing the blood Jesus shed.

As night closes in, penitents’ candles sway like fireflies dancing in the dark. The entire Holy Week in Spain is a glorious spectacle. After a full day, it’s hard to imagine more — and then the Mary known as “Estrella” appears, ethereal and radiant. A shower of petals rains down upon her as if heaven itself is thanking her for her immense and loving sacrifice.