The meaning of Spain’s Semana Santa processions

LAST UPDATED: 6 May, 2016 @ 13:27

WE’VE all heard of the prosessions, or los Pasos if you’re Spanish. The dazzling array of hooded figures, candles and men heaving giant statues of Jesus or The Virgin Mary through town. But why do people do it?

26_03_20160999Many assume that it is a ‘crazy christian’ affair, or perhaps even just wheeled out for tourism. You can only find its real significance if you talk to people directly involved in the processions.

I talked to one of Jerez de la Frontera’s largest brotherhoods. Each procession is organised by one of them, not the church. It’s their chance to be noticed, and they take it in their stride. Clubbing together the religious brotherhood community has created traditions and received many followers, giving the processions their meaning.

The first piece of symbolism is in the processions order.

Penitents, or representatives of sin, lead the way with two carrying a large cross at the front. They walk with candles, so as to ‘light the way for Jesus, or The Virgin.’

Behind them walk the presidential officials, and then the first float with an image of Jesus frozen at a stage of the cross. Next comes the band, beating in time to direct the cargadores, or float carriers.

The entire order is then repeated for the second half, bringing up a statue of Mary.

“Since I was young, I have been involved in the processions” said Cristina, a middle-aged English teacher in Jerez.

She started going to the processions in her childhood thanks to her grandfather. He was a major part of the brotherhood community. Every year he would get the whole family into a procession. In time, this turned involvement into a family tradition.

It would be weird not to march these days.

The woman may take part, but they are not allowed to carry the floats. Rules remain in place dictating that only men may carry them. Cristina does not view this as a problem. The float is ‘very heavy’, she tells me.

Men carrying the float had never thought about why they did it. “I don’t know” commented a waiter at a Jerez café, who had been a float carrier, “maybe for faith?”

Lugging a 55kg structure through Jerez, a city measuring four miles across, would require some form of motivation. Faith was the most often cited driver.

By marching, they felt that they had sent a message to God. Carrying the float is meant to give them the experience of Christ’s own suffering.

Despite people marching for faith and devotion, like all good things, they still MUST PAY.

“The normal price is 30 euros”, said Cristina. “Everyone pays the same amount.” The money apparently goes towards float maintenance and provision of equipment to ensure the procession runs smoothly.

However, it still feels like yet another money making exercise from the Catholic Church.

It is clear that the processions aren’t going anywhere soon. Still bogged down in concepts of faith and tradition, they are symbolic of wider backwardness in Andalucia. We can hope that in the future religion may release its hold over the processions, allowing people to take part for interest or a strong ‘Andaluz’ sentiment.

We can hope.

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Fresh from Durham to Jerez de la Frontera, the change in my life has been huge. I was born and raised in London where I worked as a tour guide. From there, I went to study an Anthropology BA at Durham University. This year is equivalent to a ‘year abroad’ for me, although not department endorsed. I had been learning Spanish for two years, and took the decision to come out to Jerez to gain experience of a different culture and life. My interests include swimming, drawing, writing (of course) and playing the piano.


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  1. Dear Luke, I suppose they taught you in University that a good little social justice warrior’s sole opinion speaks for all of us, as “We”. Well here’s a wake up call from real life that your Socialism 101 class forgot to mention. “We” didn’t write this story. “You” did.

    And “Your” disparaging comments comments about these widely respected and much appreciated processions by many people of faith and Spanish culture are insulting. If “You” think that Semana Santa is a “money making exercise” for the church, or that they are “symbolic of wider backwardness in Andalusia” that is “your” right. But don’t presume that all of us labelled as “We” agree with you. “I” for one (notice that “I” did not say “We”) sincerely admire and respect the Semana Santa processions. And “I” don’t think they have anything to do with money, nor do “I” think that the processions are “backward”. And “I” do not “hope” that the processions will chnage to fit your personal views of what they should be for many of us. Howver, “i” do agree with “your” bio’s comment about being “fresh” from Durham. Where “I” believe that you still have a lot of growing up to do and actually learn about how the real world works. “You” might be surprised that just because “you” or your anthropology professor have an opinion, that it does not apply to everyone else as “We”. It doesn’t.

    • All done in praise of Idolatry. Quick reminder of the first two Commandments. One: Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. Two: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
      The first two “big rules” trampled into the dust by the Cargadores. (Who, by the way, don’t seem to know why they do it)