Holy Week, Leading up to Easter, as Celebrated in Greece, Italy, Slovenia, and Spain
During Holy Week, eggs — a symbol of rebirth — are a recurring theme in Greece, Slovenia, and Italy. In Slovenia, priests bless Easter baskets. Italian villagers re-enact the Easter story, while in Sevilla, people visit churches, prepare floats, and join processions.
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While Palm Sunday kicks Holy Week off with grand spectacle, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are quieter. According to the Bible, Jesus disappoints those expecting a conquering hero. And things move, step by step, toward his execution. In every culture, communities take these days to prepare for Easter.
While traditions vary, eggs are a recurring theme at Easter time. In Greece, Orthodox churches display exquisitely painted ostrich eggs. Symbolic of rebirth and resurrection, they hang prominently from ornate chandeliers.
Greece celebrates Easter with particular gusto. In fact, all of Holy Week is a school vacation. Children like Evelina drop by their godparents’ for a little quality time — which, today, includes dyeing eggs. Here in Greece, the color is always red, to symbolize the blood of Christ. These will be great to share when Easter Sunday arrives. Godparents also give a big chocolate egg and a special candle to their godchild to hold at the Resurrection ceremony on Easter Sunday.
As spring emerges, trees blossom, flowers bloom, and fields green up. We’re reminded of the earth’s newborn fertility. It’s easy to understand how eggs, symbolic of new life, have become tied to the Easter theme of rebirth.
In beautiful Slovenia, in the remote region of Bela Krajina, where many of Slovenia’s folk tales were born, old customs have been kept alive in villages tucked among the hills and forests. The region’s isolation has preserved these traditions, which, over the centuries, have morphed from those prescribed by the seasons, to those prescribed by the Church. In medieval times, to celebrate the arrival of spring after months of scarcity, decorated eggs were offered as gifts.
Many families still dye their Easter eggs according to tradition: Spring leaves and flowers from the garden are pressed on to an egg, wrapped in gauze, and then boiled in onion skins. After the gauze is removed the eggs are left to cool — now beautifully decorated with stamps of springtime.
Today, Slovenian decorated eggs are a revered folk art and prized gifts at Easter. This woman is using a delicate technique of drawing on the shell with a tool loaded with hot beeswax. She then dyes the egg with natural colors. Finally, eggs are rubbed in pig’s fat to lend a nice sheen.
While techniques vary, decorated eggs with designs inspired by nature add heritage and local pride to Easter celebrations. Slovenes today value this humble gift just as they did in medieval times.
As their grandmothers did, these village women enjoy working together as they embroider cloths to cover the Easter baskets that’ll hold their eggs and special foods for a blessing.
The giving of eggs can come with a playful twist. In Italy, chocolate eggs contain hidden gifts for loved ones. Here, in a backstreet of Rome, a fine chocolate shop embraces Easter with enthusiasm. And Antonello is on a mission. With some help from behind the counter, he arranges to have a necklace planted inside a big chocolate egg. The plan: on Easter Sunday, his sweetheart will discover the gift as a re-affirmation of his love.
Back in Sevilla we saw no chocolate Easter eggs. But there are still plenty of Semana Santa penitents, and the week is in full swing.
This shop’s been selling penitent cones for 200 years, and is full of locals getting a last-minute fitting. Behind the busy shop, a woman stitches the cones by hand — just as she’s done for 40 years.
Nearby, another shop makes the woven belts and necklace cords that penitents wear over their robes — the shop is so small the spinning spills into the street.
Bakeries are filled with holiday treats, like sweet cookies and spicy pestiños. Hungry patrons at this tapas bar enjoy meatless pre-Easter plates of salt cod fritters.
And the walls are completely covered with historic photos of Semana Santa, while a TV set shows coverage of the float procession rather than football.
At home, children get ready with a dress rehearsal, practicing the big moment when they get to join a procession. Juan and Irena patiently review the plan, and dress up as young penitents. As a reward, they help their mama and papa make torrijas — another Semana Santa favorite — this one made with bread, honey, and cinnamon.
Families wait in long lines at various churches for a chance to kiss the foot of Jesus, or the hand of Mary. This intimate moment is treasured by the people of Sevilla. It’s only possible after a statue’s brought down from the altar, and before it’s hoisted atop its float.
The most revered of these encounters is with El Gran Poder — the Great Power. Here, Jesus, exhausted from his humiliation and beating at the hands of his captors, prepares to take up the cross — an acknowledgement of the burdens we all must carry. Rituals like these make Jesus accessible to Sevillanos, who are visibly moved by the encounter.
All across town, churches are enlivened with ritual. And various Marys play a prominent role. This Mary is called “Soledad,” or “solitude.” She traditionally adorns the last float of Semana Santa, poignantly reminding people of her great loneliness after the death of her son. The Mary of Solitude is beloved by those who wait for this once-a-year opportunity — convinced she will empathize with their needs and hear their prayers.
Easter is a time of family and feasting. In every culture, special foods weave together religious and folk traditions. It’s a time of music, blessings, and community as Holy Week builds to Easter Sunday.
Deep in Italy’s Marche region, the mountains seem to cradle more time-honored Easter rituals. A folk band of troubadours goes farm to farm to help bless the coming harvest. They rouse the family with their music. And then, as is the tradition, they’re invited to enjoy a rustic meal: farm-made cheese, salami, and wine.
The holiday spirit in Italy can be found in larger cities, too, like Siena. Like anywhere, in Italy, Easter is a time when generations come together. Preschoolers bring some Easter joy to this retirement home with skits and songs. The touching scene takes these seniors back to their distant childhood. And they respond with gifts.
Back in the Tuscan countryside, locals bring baskets of eggs to their tiny church to be blessed by their priest. These will be enjoyed by young and old alike on Easter Sunday.
In Slovenia, Lake Bled is nestled at the foot of the Julian Alps. This spectacular and romantic location is famous as a summer resort, although in the springtime it can be chilly. But the weather doesn’t stop townsfolk from making the short trip on a pletna boat to the lake’s island. Next to the island’s church is a bakery famous for Slovenia’s Easter bread, called potica. This holiday treat, much loved by Slovenes, represents Jesus’ Crown of Thorns, and is eaten for Easter brunch.
Potica is a log of sweet bread filled with a paste of walnuts and honey, chopped almonds, and fruit. It’s placed in ceramic Bundt pan, and after baking it’s flipped to reveal the finished potica. This busy baker will make a couple dozen of these today in anticipation of the coming feast.
Back in Slovenia’s Bela Krajina, a self-sufficient old farmer wears the region’s traditional white linen, which he wove himself. He packs up his Easter feast for a blessing: smoked pork representing Christ’s body, horseradish root for the nails on the cross, potica for the Crown of Thorns, and hard-boiled eggs dyed red for the blood Christ shed. It’s all packed into a basket and covered with the embroidered cloth.
For centuries, it’s been a tradition for Slovenes to gather during Holy Week to have these baskets of symbolic Easter foods blessed by their priest. Some go by boat to the island church…some gather at humble roadside chapels…and others bring their baskets to timeless village churches.
On Thursday of Holy Week the events of the Passion accelerate. Jesus, whose ministry lasted just three years, knows his destiny: betrayal, followed by execution.
Back in Italy’s remote Marche region, in the stony village of Cantiano, Jesus’ destiny is brought to life for all to see. In the evening the entire town participates in a dramatic re-enactment of the Easter story, retelling it as they have for centuries.
Townspeople consider it an honor to play a part in this epic Biblical story. On this night, Jesus gathers his 12 apostles for their Last Supper. Villagers and visitors alike are transfixed as he tells his disciples, “One of you will betray me,” and they respond, “Lord, is it I?”
With Good Friday only hours away, Cantiano’s church is dressed in mourning. Crosses and artwork are covered — draped in purple, representing the Passion. Holy Thursday is one of the most sacred Masses in the Catholic calendar, full of ancient ritual and mysticism. This day is also known as Maundy Thursday: “Maundy” means “mandate,” and refers to Jesus’ new commandment. On this day, according to the Bible, he told his apostles, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Jesus demonstrated this commandment at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of his disciples. When a priest washes the feet of his parishioners, he’s reminding them of this mandate. Doing this humble job, customarily given to the lowliest servant, illustrates the depth of Jesus’s love and the love he called others to show each other.
This gesture is followed by the Eucharist. Also called Holy Communion, it symbolically re-enacts that last supper, and is a reminder of the great sacrifice of the Crucifixion. The bread and the wine are taken together by Christians to remember the body and blood Christ gave so they could be forgiven and saved in the eyes of God. For Christians, this is the essence of the Easter story.
Back in Spain, in Sevilla, various religious fraternities parade on different days during Holy Week, so preparations continue all week long. This fraternity is putting finishing touches on its float before it hits the street. Men, women, and even young children are all members of neighborhood fraternities. For centuries these groups were mission-based, and today all are still involved in social causes, such as helping the poor. Excitement fills the air, and so does laughter, as flowers are prepped and arranged. Candles are set out for the penitents…and petals are plucked for showering upon Mary when she takes her turn parading through the city. This is tender work, and great care is taken to make sure that the floats are perfect in every way.
Floats with Mary are often the most anticipated during Semana Santa, as she is beloved for the suffering she endures and her empathy with the people. This Mary is known as “Estrella,” and inside her namesake star she carries a relic of the cross. She’ll have her moment later this evening.
Out on the crowded streets, floats slowly make their way to the cathedral. 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.