For Roman Catholics, the week preceding Easter holds a special significance. In fact, the week is so sacred that it’s known as the Holy Week. In the Philippines and lots of the Spanish-speaking world, the Holy Week is known as Semana Santa.
This year, Semana Santa takes place from Sunday March 28th until Saturday April 3rd and will feature a wonderful mix of colours, sounds and unique traditions. Continue reading to discover how Semana Santa is celebrated in different parts of the globe.
When did Semana Santa start?
Semana Santa’s origins date back to 16th-century Spain when the Marqués de Tarifa returned to Andalucia from the Holy Land. Inspired by his trip, he established the Via Crucis in churches across Spain. The Via Crucis (or Way of the Cross) is a series of images depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion.
From then on, Semana Santa was observed with processions and rituals to reconstruct the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. In the Roman Catholic faith, Semana Santa (the Holy Week) includes:
- Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday).
- Miércoles de Ceniza (Ash Wednesday).
- Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday, day of the Last Supper).
- Viernes Santo (Good Friday).
- Sábado Santo (Holy Saturday).
- Domingo de Resurrección (Resurrection or Easter Sunday).*
*Takes place the day after Semana Santa
How Colombia celebrates Semana Santa
For many Colombians, Semana Santa is a time to escape city life in favour of towns and villages. But no matter where you are, Semana Santa is still a time for celebrations and festivities across Colombia.
The northern town of Mompox, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a long history of upholding Semana Santa traditions in Colombia. Starting back in 1564, the wealthy would aim to wash away their sins by donating money, altars and paintings to the Catholic church.
Nowadays, residents of Mompox observe Miércoles de Ceniza (Ash Wednesday) in a very distinctive way. Dressed in their best clothing, the town’s residents participate in evening processions to the graves of loved ones. While some mourners spend the night observing a candlelit vigil, others will adorn graves with flowers and perform songs for their dearly departed.
Back in Bogota, no Semana Santa is complete without a pilgrimage to the top of Monserrate – the highest mountain in the city. While tourists frequently take the cable car or funicular railway, Catholics usually make the journey on foot.
Semana Santa in the Philippines
Compared to most other Catholic countries, Semana Santa in the Philippines is a sombre affair. Cities and towns across the country are deserted, with many businesses closing their doors to observe religious rituals. Even some TV and radio stations temporarily cease broadcasting.
For devout Catholics, the Holy Week means swapping meat for fish, with some even going on a liquid diet. Perhaps the most striking image of the Holy Week in the Philippines is the sight of Filipinos publicly recreating Jesus’ last days on earth.
These are reenactments of Jesus’ death and involve people whipping themselves, nailing their hands and feet to crosses or wearing crowns of thorns. In what has become a bizarre tourist attraction, Tondo in Manila is the place to see these extreme forms of mortification.
One of the most important Holy Week traditions in the Philippines is the Visita Iglesia (church visit). On Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday), people visit seven churches to pray by a Way of the Cross Way, and in the evenings, in front of each church’s Altar of Repose.
Semana Santa in the Dominican Republic
The Holy Week in the Dominican Republican (DR) is the time for loved ones to get together and celebrate. While the beginning of the week is more family-focused, the religious significance comes to the fore as Easter approaches.
Beginning on Viernes Santo (Good Friday), the streets empty and shops and restaurants close. Also, music and alcohol consumption stops around the country for Holy Week.
On Sábado Santo (Holy Saturday), many Dominicans will hold a vigil from 11 pm until Domingo de Resurrección (Easter Sunday), observing the hours before the Resurrection.
Another beautiful tradition on Sábado Santo is kite flying, which is a national sign of hope. Throughout the day, you’ll see the sky full of kites of all colours, known in the Dominican Republic as chichiguas.
Like many other countries, Dominicans traditionally abstain from meat for Holy Week, so seafood dishes are popular at this time of year.
One classic Semana Santa treat unique to the DR is habichuelas con dulce. Traditionally served as a chilled dessert, it’s best described as a bean version of rice pudding.
Semana Santa in Mexico
Different regions of Mexico are known for unique traditions during Semana Santa, such as public displays of physical torture, ridicule and commitment.
In some of the more devout regions like Taxco, these reenactments include penitentes – men and women who show their penitence by carrying large religious objects on their backs.
This ancient tradition dates back to the middle ages when it was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish. During the reenactments, the actor playing Jesus usually wears a real crown of thorns and carries a heavy Cross to the scene of the Crucifixion.
In towns like San Miguel de Allende, another Spanish-influenced tradition is the Burning of the Judases. In Spain, carpenters would make wooden dolls representing Judas, then hang and burn them in town squares to punish Judas for betraying Jesus.
Semana Santa traditions in Brazil
Brazil has one of the world’s largest Catholic populations, so Semana Santa is a big deal nationwide. Besides church services and vigils, there are processions and rituals similar to those of other Catholic countries, yet unique to Brazil due to its Portuguese influences.
Some well known Semana Santa events in Brazil include the Procissão do Fogaréu, a torchlight procession featuring hooded men symbolising the Roman soldiers that arrested Jesus. Other religious services occur across the country, incorporating Catholic traditions such as weaving crosses from palm tree branches.
Unlike other parts of Latin America, Easter eggs make up an important part of Semana Santa celebrations and typically, loved ones will exchange Huevos de Páscoa (Easter eggs).
While Easter in Brazil is centred on religion, a family theme also plays an integral part in the festivities. Semana Santa is a chance to spend time with loved ones, especially children, who are given sweets and reminded of the week’s religious importance.
How Spain celebrates Semana Santa
Spain has one of the most traditional celebrations for Semana Santa in the world, especially in Andalusia. There are extravagant street processions in most cities and towns, particularly in non-tourist hotspots.
The week is full of biblical readings, church services and the aforementioned processions that culminate with the carrying of large pasos through streets and town squares. Pasos are religious statues or effigies used to re-enact the scenes surrounding Jesus’ death.
If you’ve never seen a Semana Santa celebration, you may be taken aback at the sight of the traditional capirote. Often confused by its use by American supremacist hate groups, capirote are the colourful and pointed silk hats worn by clergymen and different brotherhoods in Spain.
The hats date back to the Spanish Inquisition and are also popular in some Latin American countries. The head covering’s cone shape is actually meant to point to Heaven, reaching out with prayers for penance.