Holy Week in Madrid – 4 things you should know about Semana Santa
Soon it’s going to be Holy Week in Madrid…
(And everywhere else, incidentally.)
Yes, Semana Santa in all its Spanish glory.
After a couple of years in which getting together in groups was mostly prohibited, it looks like the celebration is back on for 2023.
Are you ready?
Today we’re going to talk about the 4 things you should know if you’re going to be celebrating Holy Week in Madrid – and a lot of them will apply to (almost) anywhere else in Spain.
Whatever your religion, you can surely find something to enjoy about the Holy Week celebrations.
Whether it’s the processions, the desserts, or a trip to the beach, there’s something for everyone.
First, a bit of vocabulary…
Holy Week Vocabulary in Spanish and English
Here’s a new thing – I’m teaching Spanish on YouTube, and I’ve got a video in which I teach some of the key Holy Week vocab.
You can learn some language and culture there, and feel free to head by YouTube to subscribe to my channel for much more. (It’s a bit of a work in progress, but there’s more on the way.)
Anyway, here’s some of the key Holy Week vocabulary in Spanish, with English translation following…
- Cuaresma = Lent
- Miércoles de Ceniza = Ash Wednesday
- Semana Santa = Holy Week
- Domingo de Ramos = Palm Sunday
- Jueves Santo = Maundy Thursday
- Viernes Santo = Good Friday
- Domingo de Pascua = Easter Sunday
- procesiones = religious processions
- la misa = Mass
- una iglesia = a church
- una catedral = a cathedral
- una parroquia = a parish (neighborhood church)
- una basílica = a basilica
Interesting note: the Sagrada Familia here in Barcelona is, in fact a basilica, not a cathedral – although many English-speaking media outlets tend to call it a “cathedral” anyway. The difference is that a cathedral is where a bishop or an archbishop is headquartered.
A basilica is an important church, designated as such by the pope. A cathedral can be a basilica also, but not all basilicas are cathedrals. And a cathedral (as headquarters for the bishop or archbishop) can be moved by decree of the Pope, but the designation of “basilica” is permanent. All that’s in Roman Catholicism, by the way – your local version of Christianity may use the words differently.
Anyway, now that you know how to talk about some typical traditions, it’s time for some culture.
Holy Week Processions in Madrid and Spain
The main attractions in most towns during Holy Week are the religious processions.
Different churches around town have figures of Christ or the Virgin Mary that spend most of the year indoors. But during Holy Week, parishioners take them out for a slow walk around the neighborhood.
When I say slow, I mean really slow. The processions take hours, and you might get bored.
Then again, you might not. I tend to stick around for half an hour or so, to enjoy the music, the ambiance, the cross-dragging and the girls and women of all ages dressed as widows.
This year (2023) Holy Week is in April, and it looks like the weather will be good.
But when Holy Week falls in March, there are often news reports full of people down in Andalucía who are sobbing – heartbroken because they spent all year preparing, and on the day of the big procession, it won’t stop raining!
(Can’t get those virgins wet, of course… that’s the thing with virgins. See my article about Sex in Spain for more – it has absolutely nothing relevant to Holy Week.)
And while we’re on the topic, how ’bout…
Those horrendous Holy Week hoods!
Ok, ok… so the pointy hats have some pretty unfortunate connotations in the US.
If you’re new to Holy Week processions, you might feel a bit offended when you see them for the first time.
I know I was.
The capirote worn in many processions is similar to the hats worn by the KKK – my understanding is that someone in the KKK may have been inspired by a film he saw about Holy Week celebrations in Spain, back in the early 20th century. According to Wikipedia, it’s unclear.
In any case, the hats over here have absolutely nothing to do with racism.
They might make you uncomfortable – I was certainly uncomfortable at first when I saw them – but they’ve been worn since the Middle Ages, and represent shame and penitence: two major themes of Semana Santa.
(See also, the self-flagellation in some processions. It’s a real thing.)
Anyway, don’t worry about the hats.
Watching a religious procession won’t make you join the Klan.
Holy Week in Spain: Torrijas and more torrijas
Torrijas are baically just French toast – but don’t tell Spanish people that.
I really like them. But essentially, yeah.
French toast: bread, soaked in milk and fried.
It’s special bread, and they’re served with a syrup made from white wine and sugar. They might be a bit softer and sweeter than what you’re used to as French Toast. But they’re basically the same concept.
And French or not, they’re typical at this time of year – you’d better find a Spanish partner or grandma quick if you want somebody to make them just for you.
Otherwise, you can find them at a lot of cafés and bakeries around Holy Week. They’re great!
And just another example of Spain’s seasonal pastries. Delicious and unhealthy, just like Jeebus would have wanted.
Holidays at the beach, or in Madrid
Madrid gets a bit quiet during Holy Week.
It’s just like summer… those who can, get out.
Many go to the beach to cool off – or warm up, depending on the weather.
Others go back to their hometown to help carry the virgin around their neighborhood in their processions. It’s a serious thing for a lot of Spaniards – religious or not, they get caught up in the ceremony.
I had a student from a town in Extremadura years ago – she was young, intelligent, and not even a practicing Catholic… but she loved dressing up in a black veil and crying all the way through the pueblo.
Just a fun tradition, I guess, for her.
Either way, if you’re in Madrid, or anywhere else, google around. There are usually processions from Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) to Easter Sunday (Domingo de Resurrección).
Enjoy your Holy Week in Madrid (or elsewhere)
If you’re not into somber displays of faith, don’t worry.
Holy Week processions aren’t for everybody – but they can be an interesting cultural experience.
And you’ll see them basically anywhere in Spain you choose to spend the week. And if you want to go to the beach, well, have fun.
There’s lots to do, wherever you are.
What’s your favorite part of Holy Week in Madrid – or Spain?
Let me know, right here in the comments.
P.S. It’s been a long time since I’ve spent Holy Week in Madrid. But I do have some photos from around Spain during previous years. Try Holy Week in Soria and Zaragoza, and procesiones in Mérida. And if you’re looking for some photos of a previous year’s Holy Week in Madrid, here they are. Enjoy!