Shauna’h Fuegen shares her experience during Holy Week in Spain and how it prepared her for Easter.
When my husband and I decided to take a leap and move our family to Spain for six months while he was in graduate school, I was most looking forward to attending Semana Santa. I knew that Holy Week in Spain was a big deal, full of processions and pageantry. I was, however, unprepared for the scale and intensity of it, and I am forever changed.
Semana Santa is put on by groups, called Brotherhoods or Confraternities, each based out of a neighborhood church in a particular city. I am located in Zaragoza, but southern Spain is full of Semana Santa events. Brotherhoods include men, women, and children playing instruments, carrying banners, incense, and candles while marching in processions. I saw sleeping infants being cradled, family and friends embracing between songs, and many young kids learning beginner instruments. These people, called penitents or Nazarenos, wear habits based on their Brotherhood. You may be familiar with the capirote pointed hat that many penitents wear, a sight that is shocking to Americans but has no connection to white supremacy.
Each Brotherhood has their own altars (called pasos), featuring scenes from Jesus’ Passion or the Mother of Sorrows, which are carried or pushed along by penitents. More than just parades, Semana Santa processions are massive displays of public worship, mourning, and repentance during the holiest days of the liturgical year. I have never seen anything like it.
Semana Santa is a full-body experience that stimulates all five senses:
- Sight: There are so many striking and emotional sights that it’s hard to narrow them down to just a few: the dramatic habits of the penitents, the painful beauty of the scenes depicted on the pasos, and the reverence of the fraternities as they processed. It was a veritable visual feast.
- Sound: The persistent boom of the bass drums, the snappy clacking of the snare drums, and the high-pitched pronouncements of the bugles. Semana Santa has a SOUND and a rhythm that set my heart on fire.
- Smell: The incense. Oh, the incense. Every procession started with it, incense-bearers were sprinkled throughout, and the altars were constantly being refilled with it. It smelled like heaven.
- Touch: It felt like the entire city came out for processions. You’re shoulder to shoulder with fellow spectators, stretching up and squeezing in-between for a better vantage point. Children are placed on their parents’ shoulders and pushed to the front of crowds.
- Taste: Local bars and restaurants near the path of the processions were spilling over with people grabbing a bite to eat or a cold drink. There are certain foods, such as torrijas, which are fried balls of deliciousness soaked in honey and traditionally only available during Holy Week.
I attended six processions, including an epic Good Friday chronology of Jesus’ Passion and death that lasted three hours. By Holy Saturday I was positively longing for the joy of the Resurrection. The final procession takes place on Easter morning, and features Our Lady coming face-to-face with the risen Christ. I found Semana Santa to be a physical act of witnessing and encountering the pain, despair, and ecstasy of the Triduum.
Semana Santa prepared me for the Resurrection like never before. In the States, Holy Week is set apart by the Triduum masses and some other events, but the secular world continues spinning around us. In Zaragoza, the entire city shut down on Holy Thursday and Good Friday: no school, no grocery stores, everything was closed. This communal quiet creates space for Mass, Stations of the Cross, attending processions, and time with family.
The buildup to Easter Sunday is intense, and I’m finding that sustained Easter joy is flowing more easily for me during this 50-day season. I’m craving more time spent in prayer and reverence (give me ALL the candles and incense, please). I’m deeply appreciative of being given this experience, and in being led so strongly by God to be here with my family at this time.
Semana Santa was absolutely incredible, and deserves a spot on every Catholic’s Bucket List. If you’d like to see all of my photos and videos from that week, visit my Semana Santa highlight on Instagram.
Copyright 2022 Shauna'h Fuegen
Images: copyright 2022 Shauna'h Fuegen, all rights reserved.
About the Author
Shauna’h Fuegen is a cradle Catholic, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), wife, and working mother of three young boys. She guides Catholic women through making time and space for God, even in the busiest of seasons. You can find her at Fiat Sanctum writing about prayer routines, everyday holiness, and life as a Secular Franciscan. Follow along with Shauna’h on Instagram @fiatsanctum.