The Easter Holiday, otherwise known in Spain as Holy Week or Semana Santa, is undoubtedly the biggest religious holiday of the year. Celebrating Easter in Spain as an American expat has really opened my eyes to the different interpretations and traditions involved. All of which are special and sacred.
Since our family has only been living abroad for two and a half years, we feel a certain tug of war when it comes to holiday time. We want to continue to celebrate the same traditions from back home that our children have come to love (and expect).
Such traditions like Santa Clause, Trick or Treating and of course the Easter Bunny are beloved pastimes we aren’t willing to let go of simply because we no longer live in the states.
But by comparison, being an expat means accepting and adapting to the way things are done in other parts of the world. And when it comes to Easter, things are quite different which we’ve come to learn.
What Easter Looks Like in Spain
Easter is a time for Spaniards to take to the streets and watch elaborate reenactments of the Passion, as well as enjoy some time off work in the company of their families and friends.
Elaborate processions take place throughout all of Holy Week. Associations known as cofradías or ‘brotherhoods’ (whose members take part in the processions) are a strong tradition in Spain, with many dating back to the Middle Ages.
To spot the start of a procession, look out for the giant cross that is always carried at the front, usually with Jesus depicted. Music also plays an important part in Semana Santa processions – most are accompanied by live marching bands that play religious music.
The floats are an important part of the religious process. They are huge, intricate and elaborate pieces of artwork, which feature statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus on the cross and important events such as The Last Supper. During many of the processions, the floats are carried on the heads of men and women who hide underneath them.
People taking part in Semana Santa processions dress in traditional capirote – the tall conical hat which also covers their faces, as well as in belted robes.
Capirotes used to be reserved for people doing penance: as a sign of atoning their sins, they would walk through the town wearing the hat, their faces covered so they could not be recognized as sinners.
I know what you’re thinking. Although strikingly similar, they have nothing to do with the hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan.
If you are visiting Spain during Easter time and want to witness the most ornate and lively Semana Santa parades look no further than Andalusia, especially the cities of Seville and Málaga. The region’s flamenco heritage seeps into its Easter celebrations, making for a fest like no other in Spain and one that attracts the most tourists.
Seville holds some of the biggest Holy Week processions including La Madruga (dawn), a series of processions that take place during the night into the morning of Good Friday, a highlight of Semana Santa for many spectators. Listen out for the saetas, or bursts of flamenco from people on balconies along the procession route who are so moved by the spectacle they have to express it in song.
How Easter in Spain Differs from America
As you can gather, Easter in Spain holds a very strong religious focus. Actually, it’s the ONLY focus. The only place to be on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are in the streets observing the elaborate processions.
And while religion does play a large role in the states for Christians and Catholics, some might argue the Easter Bunny is the A-List celebrity of the occasion.
In American, it is typical for children to visit the Easter Bunny in the same way that Santa is visited at shopping malls or special events. Having their photo taken with the big bunny is a tradition many families hold dear through the years as their kids grow. We sure miss this living in Spain.
In this part of the world, he hardly exists! He doesn’t come hopping down the bunny trail in Barcelona. He doesn’t carry a big basket filled with treats and also does not hide eggs around your house!
Sure, you can find your assortment of stores with bunny treats and plastic colorful eggs (gotta love the consumerism around holiday time!) But it is not widely embraced here.
What Children Receive
Eggs and rabbits (signs of fertility and new life) are traditional symbols of Easter in the United States. Chocolate bunnies, baskets filled with treats and Easter eggs, often adorned in colorful foil wrappers, are given to children as presents or are hidden for the Easter Sunday “egg hunt.”
The memories I have as a child of racing around our house Easter morning in search of my assigned color egg are dear to my heart. So this is a tradition we made sure to keep alive while living in Spain. Our three children also receive the traditional baskets with sweets and small toys or crafts.
And in an effort to embrace the Spanish tradition of la mona, we try to include in their baskets a large chocolate egg beautifully wrapped.
The la mona is a traditional treat in Catalonia given on Easter Sunday, when a godparent presents his godchild with a “cake”. These delicious chocolate delicacies can be of any shape, from the traditional round pan shape to Disney characters, toys and pretty much anything else the baker thinks will appeal to a child.
In a word, they are marvelous!! And NOT cheap! Some can run from 75 euro to 200 depending on how high-end the bakery.
What Happens at Mealtime
If there is one element of any holiday that is widely embraced everywhere, it’s the FOOD! Mealtime brings families together and with this gathering always comes traditional dishes anticipated year after year.
A typical Easter Sunday dinner in Spain may consist of garlic soup (sopa de ajo) with a baked egg in the middle, or seafood. There are also tons of sweet delicacies, as the Spaniards look to reward themselves after a long Lent without them.
Similar to French toast, torrijas are typically eaten around Easter time. They consist of bread, dipped in milk and egg, then fried, before being sprinkled in sugar and drenched in honey. Some of them also have a burnt sugar layer on the top, similar to a crème brûlée. These have easily become our family favorite!
Another Easter treat are pestiños, which are like crunchy, deep-fried fritters, flavored with anise and orange and glazed with sugar or honey. These are hugely popular in the Andalucian region of southern Spain.
Easter is a very special time of year celebrating resurrection and rebirth. So wherever in the world you happen to be celebrating, keep those traditions alive for future generations.
We plan to do the same in our family as a reflection of our life in America and our life here in Spain!