Apparently Holy Week or Santa Semana in Zaragoza is not in the same league as Andalucia – well that’s what I read, but we found it to be pretty incredible. So scenic with several processions going around and through the narrow city streets every evening, we were amazed by the dramatic sculptures and icons, fascinated by the women clad in black and as for the hundreds and hundreds of hooded people playing drums – magnificent. The Holy Week celebrations in this city date back to the 18th century and apparently the celebration attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year. We found the streets lined with people but did not hear another English voice the whole time we were there.
Our visit was definitely enhanced by having the opportunity to view the processions on several occasions with our wonderful Spanish friends – a family whose excitement was contagious, they explained all the traditions carefully to us and made us feel completely involved.
More than 15,000 people take part in the processions. They are members of 24 Easter brotherhoods who spend much time (and probably a lot of money) preparing and practising for their procession. They wear tall pointed hoods and robes, each brotherhood has a different colour and a slightly different outfit. Son was a bit taken aback (we all were to be honest) when we saw the first procession. These costumes, having never seen them before, reminded us all of a more sinister organisation and we found them a bit off putting. By the end of the week though we had got used to it all and didn’t flinch.
The brotherhoods are religious associations that look after the icons throughout the year and plan the next events and celebrations. They are the heart of Holy Week in Zaragoza and were formed in the 16th century for this purpose. They abide by strict regulations to ensure this is a true Roman Catholic event and do not include pagan traditions in their events. We met one of Husband’s colleagues who is a member of a brotherhood and saw how these people take this role very seriously.
The outfits put us off guard but so did the icons – not being Roman Catholic these were also something different for us. The outfits have no sinister meaning – the cone shaped hat symbolises rising to the heavens. The brotherhoods hide their faces and leave holes for their eyes, this is supposed to represent them mourning the death of Jesus on the cross. Apparently the hats are removed on Easter Sunday. Traditionally all these hooded people were male, in recent years more women have become involved and now lots take part. The drumming and trumpet playing symbolises marching around the Walls of Jericho.
The whole thing starts on the Saturday before Palm Sunday with an opening ceremony and procession then daily processions of the different brotherhoods follow. We arrived on Palm Sunday in the evening and just followed the sound of drums beating to see our first procession. This became a feature of our evening the whole time we were in Zaragoza. Some processions go on until 3am – we never made it to the end of one.
The symbolism is all very serious but the city was still vibrant and busy. As well as the brotherhoods we saw women wearing traditional black outfits and mantillas, so many drummers and groups of men carrying floats adorned with flowers, candles and the icon. They marched slowly and solemnly down the old streets of the city to the rhythm of the drums. They stop occasionally for a prayer or silent meditation. There is always an intense smell of incense in the air. We found the whole experience to be engaging and rather emotional.