Easter week, or Semana Santa as it is in Castellano (Setmana Santa in Catalan), is the biggest religious festival of the year in the Christian calendar and is celebrated with particular fervour in many parts of Spain.
How come the date is different every year?
Easter and its related holidays are moveable feasts, in that they do not fall on the same date every year and are determined on a lunisolar calendar similar to the Hebrew calendar. The rules for calculating the date for Easter each year were first established by the First Council of Nicaea (325AD) but in practice it took centuries and a number of controversies before one method was settled upon. Interestingly, nowhere is it decreed that Easter must fall on Sunday, but this became the practice almost everywhere and is now the custom throughout the Christian world. In Western Christianity, which uses the Gregorian Calendar, Easter always falls on a Sunday between 22 March and 25 April.
Wear something new!
Semana Santa starts with Domingo de Ramos (Castellano) or Diumenge de Rams (Catalan), which is Palm Sunday in English (10 April 2022). In Spain, they have a tradition of always wearing something new to mark the day. There is even have a proverb that goes: “Domingo de Ramos: al que no estrena se le caen las manos!”, which translates as “On Palm Sunday if you don’t wear something new your hands will fall off”!” Good Friday this year falls on 15 April and is a public holiday everywhere in Spain. Easter Monday on the 18th is also a holiday here in Catalunya (Visca Catalunya!), but not throughout all Spain. (Certain public holidays in Catalunya differ from those in other regions of Spain.)
There are lots of other traditions associated with Easter that most of us are familiar with and many of these go back to pagan times. Back then, eggs were associated with rebirth and new life (understandably enough!) and so in springtime people used to colour them and present them as gifts – the beginning of today’s Easter eggs.
The Easter Bunny (Rabbit) is another tradition whose origins can be traced back to pre-Christianity. Pagans in Europe celebrated a fertility goddess called Eostre and rabbits, of course, are well known for being VERY fertile. Over time a tradition developed of an egg-laying rabbit or hare known as Osterhase, which in turn eventually became the “Easter Bunny”. This gave rise to another custom, the Easter basket, which is basically a basket stuffed with straw to resemble a nest. Children would prepare these baskets to encourage the Easter Bunny to come and lay its coloured eggs in their “nests”.
When the Christians came along they incorporated these traditions, and others, into their celebrations. One of their stories has it that Mary Magdalene brought eggs to the crucifixion of Jesus and that drops of his blood fell onto them, colouring them red.
Semana Santa processions
As mentioned above, Easter is taken very seriously in Spain with elaborate processions taking place all over the country. These vary from region to region but the most spectacular mostly take place in Andalucía where the flamenco traditions of the region are very much part of the proceedings. The biggest and most glamorous are held in Sevilla and Málaga where there is a real party atmosphere which is in marked contrast to events further north in the region of Castilla La Mancha where the mood is much more sombre and serious.
Closer to home in the province of Girona important celebrations are held in Girona city, Besalú, Sant Hilari Sacalm, Bellcaire and Verges. In Girona, up to twelve cofradías (brotherhoods) take part in a slow procession starting at 22:00 on Good Friday at Santa Maria cathedral and passing through the old medieval part of the city. In Sant Hilari Sacalm a procession has been taking place for over three centuries reenacting “The Way of the Cross” and in Besalú the “Procession of the Sorrows” is held, also on Good Friday.
The Procession of the Virgins / Dance of Death
The closest event to this stretch of the Costa Brava is the Processó i Dansa de la Mort (Procession and Dance of Death) which takes place on Holy Thursday in Verges in the Baix Empordà. It is considered to be one of the most important examples of traditional Catalan theatre and begins at 17:00 with the Desfilada de les Manages, or Parade of the Roman soldiers. At 22:00 the Misteri de la Passió starts at Plaça Major and then at midnight the procession itself begins and is lit up by oil torches, creating an eerie atmosphere. While this is happening the most iconic and characteristic aspect of the celebration takes place – the “Dance of Death” with participants dressed in skeleton costumes dancing to the rhythm of a drum, transforming the ambience from somewhat eerie to downright spooky! The five “skeletons” (2 adults and 3 children) are arranged to form a cross and are followed by four other characters clad in tunics and carrying fiery torches.
The leader of the dance carries a scythe and another holds a black flag with an inscription in Latin; “Nemini Parco” (I don’t forgive anyone), reminding us that “time is brief”. Just in case the message isn’t clear enough the three children’s skeleton figures, two carrying saucers of ash and the other a clock with no hands, a symbol that Death always comes and that time has expired. This ancestral ritual has its roots in medieval Europe which was plagued by the Black Death and represents the inevitable passage of all from life to death. Check out the Verges website if you’d like to buy tickets for seats near the stage for the best view and to see in more detail what goes on in the area.
So enjoy Semana Santa everyone and have fun as we never know when our time is up! But don’t eat too many Easter eggs – coloured eggs laid by a mystical rabbit in a nest-basket can’t be too good for you!!