What is Semana Santa?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2019
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Semana Santa is the Spanish term for Holy Week, the week preceding Easter in the Catholic calendar. It commemorates the last week of Jesus' life, beginning with His arrival in Jerusalem, celebrated on Palm Sunday, and culminating in His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Spain and many other Catholic Spanish-speaking countries are known for their elaborate processions and celebrations during this week.

Throughout Spain, penitents in Semana Santa processions typically wear a nazareno, or a cloak and hood with a pointed cap or capirote. The uniform has been in use since the Middle Ages, designed to let people practice penance publicly without revealing their identity. The penitents may walk the streets barefoot wearing chains or carrying crosses in imitation of Christ's Passion. Ironically, the anti-Catholic terrorist group Ku Klux Klan later used the nazareno as inspiration for their own uniforms.

In Spain, the cities of Seville, Malaga, and Leon have some of the most spectacular and well-known Holy Week traditions in the country. Seville has over 50 processions over the course of the week, organized by lay Catholic brotherhoods. The processions feature pasos, floats depicting scenes of Jesus' life during his final week on Earth, which are carried on foot by costaleros hidden inside the platform. Malaga celebrations also make use of ornate floats, called tronos. In both Seville and Malaga, people watching the processions may offer extemporaneous religious songs called saetas.


Leon is known for its solemn events. The city's most famous procession, known as the Procesion de los Pasos or the Procesion del Encuentro, lasts for nine hours. In the most famous part of the procession, the pasos representing Saint John and La Dolorosa meet face to face in the Encuentro, or the encounter, and appear to be dancing with each other due to the movements of the penitents carrying the floats.

Celebrations also take place in Spanish-speaking countries of South and Central America and in the Philippines. Mexico celebrates Semana Santa with processions, including penitents and depicting events of the Passion, while altars and religious decorations are publicly displayed in many cities. Processions of penitents and Passion Plays dramatizing the events of the week leading up to Jesus' crucifixion are common in South American countries as well. Holy Week events can be especially solemn in the Philippines. In one Filipino village, San Pedro Cutud, the Passion play notoriously ends with the actual crucifixion of three participants.


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Discuss this Article

Post 10

Where else besides Spain and Mexico is this widely celebrated?

Post 8

What's the history?

Post 5

I have learned a lot from reading this. In school I have to research a Spanish festival and I picked semana Santa. Thank you for all your help.

Post 4

@danette1007- you are exactly right, the date changes yearly. The date of Easter each year is based on a calendar similar to the Hebrew calendar and Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. Using the Gregorian calendar, Easter always falls sometime between March 22nd and April 25th for those living in the US. Because of the difference in calendars and the rather complication calculations involved, some parts of the world celebrate Easter at different times.

Post 3

This celebration runs from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday each year, so that would mean that the dates of it change from year to year, is that correct?

Post 2

@sauteepan- In Mexico they celebrate with the breaking of cascarones, or colored egg shells filled with confetti. They break these over friends and family. I believe that this is a tradition that is moving to the United States as well. I have seen the confetti filled eggs being sold in stores recently.

Post 1

I'm curious, how do people celebrate Semana Santa in other countries? I have lived in Spain and actually participated in the Semana Santa festivities there -- which was amazing, by the way -- but how do people in other countries celebrate it? I'm sure that there are other specific celebrations or rituals...anybody know?

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