Procesiones – what you need to know about Spain’s Easter tradition

I’m writing this on my way back to London from Mallorca. It’s Easter Monday and I’ve spent the last five days at home with my family to celebrate the holidays. I was itching to come home for Easter as I hadn’t had the chance to do so in years – celebrating Easter with my family, that is – and also attend at least one procesión.

Easter is an important celebration in Spain

Red nazareno
Penitents, or nazarenos, cover themselves with a conical hat to protect their identity.

There are different traditions in catholic countries to mark the arrival of Easter. As far as I know, in the UK and Ireland devotees will give up something they really enjoy. In some areas of Spain there is a calendar marking the weeks down to Resurrection Sunday and we won’t eat meat or we’ll fast on Fridays.

If you are not quite familiar with the concept of Easter, it basically symbolises the day when Jesus Christ resurrected. As a kid, we used to have a huge family meal where we’d eat lamb, play board games and have tons of chocolate, although now it is a much more relaxed affair. Attending the procesiones was also an important event.

Nazareno guiding a paso
Pasos are carried on the shoulders of men (and more frequently now, women) from the starting church to the cathedral

What is a procesión?

Nazarenos in white
A cofradía takes a rest in the street. The nazarenos at the side will often give sweets to onlookers, and the children will pick up the wax from the candles with wooden sticks.

A procesión is a religious procession where cofradías (brotherhoods) perform penance. Penitents, or nazarenos, cover themselves with conical hats that hide their faces for anonymity. Often people will vouch to walk in a procesión in exchange for favours – for example health for oneself or a loved one. If the favour has been granted, the penitents may walk barefooted, attach chains to their feet or carry a cross.

Penitents used to be mostly men back in the day, although nowadays women also take part as penitents, musicians, or Manolas. Manolas are women dressed all in black and walk by the pasos – representations of the stages of Christ’s Passion.

Virgen de la Salud
A Manola stands in front of La Virgen de la Salud (Madonna of Health – I guess?), flanked by the nazarenos from that cofradía.

Procesiones are emotional events. Whether you’re catholic or not, it’s hard not to be moved by those walking to the rhythm of the drums and the sound of the trumpets. When you see a paso being carried on the shoulders of hidden men and women, wobbling down a street and working as a team, you believe in God even for just a second. And you cry.

Cuadrilla and Virgen de la Salud
Carriers take turn to walk the heavier pasos.

Attending a procesión

Procesiones are free to attend. Viewers may choose a spot on the sides of the street and wait for the penitents to pass by. This is a truly social event and families gather together, chat, and use the opportunity to catch up with friends.

Each cofradía has their own distinct colours and gowns.

Those taking part in procesiones – the penitents as well as the children helping them – carry sweets to give to children on the sideline or friends and acquaintances. This is one of my favourite parts of Easter. As a child I used to fill my tiny handbag to the brim with sweets to then share it with my cousins. Now that I’m an adult, I was delighted to have received some candy from some anonymous penitents. Because they were cloaked, I can’t reach out to express my gratitude, but I know someone recognised me and thought of me. If you’re reading this – thank you!

penitent waving
A penitent waves at us.

Where to go in 2020

I’ve only ever seen the procesiones in my home town, Palma de Mallorca, although Andalucía and Madrid are well known for them, too. I’d recommend going to the narrower streets to fully enjoy the mood. Research the route in advance, and make sure you take a blanket and a foldable chair.

Penitents will also offer estampas, small cards, with images of their cofradía’s saint.

I’d advise any tourists to be mindful of the religious significance of the procesiones and to be respectful. Do stay away from the penitents and children, and PLEASE don’t walk through the middle.

Be patient

Procesiones can go on for hours – most of them start around 7pm and will finish at 3am. As they happen on the streets, you can join and leave whenever you want.

virgen de la esperanza

I want to know what you think

Whenever I’ve been home for Easter, I always get the question “What do foreigners think of this?” and I never know what to answer.

Did you know about this Spanish tradition? Tell me in the comments.

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