La Semana Santa (Holy Week) and La Feria de Abril (the April Fair) are two of Seville’s biggest, most extravagant festivals. And they happen about two weeks apart. Although I had heard a little bit about them before coming, I really underestimated the extent of the intricacies and excellence that these festivals hold. Granted, they are most likely older than the United States as as country. But still. So I wanted to write something talking about them, and my experiences. There’s a lot to say, so it’ll probably be somewhat long, so get nice and comfy.
La Semana Santa
(lah say-mah-nah sahn-tah)
This Holy Week spans the week before Easter Sunday, and ends then. While I haven’t encountered much in the way of forced religion (I was worried my host family would expect me to go to church and everything even though I’m not currently practicing, but they aren’t practicing either. It’s only as involved as you want it to be… although the elderly might still have some choice words for your decision should you not be practicing!), Seville is extremely engrossed in tradition. As they should be, since their traditions are hundreds and hundreds of years old. That’s what Holy Week was described to me as being; a chance to embrace a centuries old tradition and admire all the culture and decoration the celebration contains. If you want to take it a step further and attend mass, participate in the processions, etc., for your own personal worship, you can definitely find a way to get involved.
Semana Santa fell about the third week of March this year, as I believe it typically does, and it’s a week off of school. (woohoo!) Because of this, lots of people choose to travel. My host family told me that while the spectacle is incredible, most Sevillanos (the people living here) choose to leave Seville, because it’s a lot of people coming into town, and it’s relatively similar from year to year. So they went to the beach. I traveled the first few days of the week with my boyfriend, to Madrid and then Granada, before ending up back in Seville for Wednesday onward of the Holy Week. We did see processions in Granada, but I believe Semana Santa is really only very seriously celebrated in Andalusia (which would include Granada and Seville, but not Madrid). While I’m not sure how the entire upper half of the country celebrates, or if they celebrate, I do know for sure that Valencia has their own traditional celebration, called Fallas (fah-yahs), where they spend the whole year constructing hundreds of fantastical wooden sculptures, spread all around the city, to finally light them all on fire and set off fireworks in the sky. I don’t know a ton more about it than that, but it looked like a blast (I have a friend abroad in Valencia right now, and my host dad is originally from Valencia, so he was the one telling me about it).
So Semana Santa is basically a week of nonstop processions. That doesn’t sound too crazy, right? I mean, a little bit, if you think nonstop all week, but like not too insane. Okay, but this. These processions are huge. Like thousands of people type huge. And each church (of which there are MANY) likely has its own procession that will occur some time during the week. To my understanding, it’s people who attend the church that participate in the procession, but that could easily be incorrect. Each church with a procession will have these gigantic scenes that are set up on floats (they’re at least life-size, for some idea of scale), and the floats are carried by about 50+ men, on their shoulders. It is preceded by members of the church of which a majority will wear the traditional uniform, a robe and tall-pointed hat (sound familiar? The members of the KKK took their inspiration from this traditional uniform, not the other way around!), and they’ll be colored according to the Holy Week day and church. Each member carries a candle, or a cross, and several wave out incense that they burn. There will also likely be a band in uniform that marches ahead, playing traditional music. Most processions have one or two floats depicting biblical scenes, and then the final float (the main one) will depict a scene of the Virgin Mary. This float will be decorated with hundreds of candles, at least as tall as her (and she’s at least life-size, remember?), and the float is intricately carved out and decorated, gilded, painted, and designed by hand. All of them are, but the Mary floats are extremely precious. There is something said about her tears being lucky, more or less. You can also go see churches before their processions, to admire the scenes, and one in particular allows the public to kiss the Mary’s hand for good fortune before she is mounted onto the float and paraded through the town.
The processions take about 2-4 hours to complete. Because there are so many churches, there are now many times apps that will have the schedules (or you can find them printed out) and potentially interactive maps, to show where the processions are. Due to the fact that there are thousands of people participating or watching this gigantic parade around the city, it can be hard to do anything else if you’re not trying to participate. For example, if you wanted to go to the city center and go shopping, I would highly recommend you pick another place to go (Nervion is good, too, for shopping. Just go there). Avoid getting caught in the processions, because it’s hard to get anywhere when they’re happening. The crowds slow to a stand-still. And while many times you can navigate other streets to move around the chaos, you’d have to know every church’s individual parade route to avoid getting stuck. If you happen to be in Seville during Semana Santa, also be warned: every route goes through an intersection near the cathedral (in between the Plaza Nueva and the Catedral de Sevilla, there will be thousands of chairs set up, you can’t miss it). Tourists and Sevillanos alike pay money to get tickets to sit in the chairs and watch, as every single procession will pass. It’s tricky to navigate around that.
While the Holy Week begins the weekend before Easter, it’s Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday) that is considered the biggest day. The processions occur at all hours of the day, but as of Holy Thursday, the processions run all night long, too. And several of the biggest, most incredible churches will have their processions. For that reason, people stay up all night Thursday to see the processions. The one that we watched, for example, La Esperanza de Triana, began the procession around 2 AM, with the Virgin leaving the church around 3:30 AM. This particular procession did not finish their route and return to the church until 12:30 PM the following day. We only watched a few hours of it, because it truly is something unique and beautiful. It’s also quite haunting. The scenes are not usually very happy ones (Jesus getting nailed to the cross probably wasn’t his best day), and the music is slow and serious. The procession moves slowly, and you can hear the shuffle of feet of the men carrying the humongous scene. Combined with the incense, it’s a very surreal feeling. Especially at night, when it’s all lit by moonlight and the glowing candles being carried by the members of the procession. As host dad said, it’s something everyone should experience at least once in their life. After that, it’s up to you to attend more or not, but it’s something everyone should see at least once.
If you’re curious, you should watch some YouTube clips:
La Feria de Abril
(lah fair-eeh-ah day ah-breel)
Feria takes place about two or three weeks later. In this case it was the second full week of April (12th-17th), and it’s another week off of school (woohoo!). This time, however, instead of being a serious religious ceremonial week, it’s all about dancing and drinking and festival activities. Feria originated in Seville as a way to more easily trade and sell cattle. “Curiosity led many women from Seville’s society to visit the fair with their buggies, which mainly was a horse market. The show went on to become a distraction and a meeting place for the city. The tents were transformed into houses where the owners then invited friends to drink or sing. The humble calico frilly Andalusian gypsy and peasant robes were copied by the wealthy and over the years classes were constituted in an authentic fashion. And so, year after year, the fair grew to become the spectacle of joy and color we know today.”
|The date of the April Fair always depends on Easter, normally celebrated two weeks later. Thus it is possible that the April Fair is held in May.|
Feria is a week long fair, much like a county fair or a state fair in America. There are food stands to buy junk food (chocolate drizzled street waffles– oh good lord), amusement park rides, shows, and tons and tons of people. Traditional clothing to wear to the fair is a flamenco dress, or a suit for men. As the times grow more modern, fewer people wear the dresses and suits, but I would say a good 70% of the crowds were dressed up. Those who choose to not dress up should look nice, it’s considered a somewhat formal occasion. It’s a bit surreal to watch the women in flamenco dresses on all the amusement park rides, but it surprisingly felt quite natural. During the day, you can watch horses draw carriages of people around, and the general vibe is more family friendly. During the night, it’s typically more suited for adults, and it’s stunningly lit all by the colorful carnival lights.
It opens Monday night at midnight, with a ceremony conducted by the city mayor. This ceremony, called the Alumbrado (“the Lighting”), draws a huge crowd and illuminates the “portal” to Feria, La Portada, and then illuminates the entire village of casetas (tiny linen houses) spread across the fairgrounds.
The casetas are privately and publicly owned, and contain mini bars on the inside, so if you walk through the village, you’ll be able to watch the people dancing and drinking and eating and laughing. You may be invited into a caseta to participate with them. If you don’t know anyone in a private caseta, you might not be invited in, but some of my friends have said that people don’t really mind as long as you’re not being disruptive. There are some public casetas, but I’ve found them to be extremely crowded and uncomfortable.
If you attend, you have to try the drink of Feria, called manzanilla. It’s a white wine and 7-up mixed drink, and it’s sweet and delicious. They sell it on every corner and in every caseta. The only drawback is that many people underestimate the alcohol because it’s so sweet, and end up drinking more than they want to. With that in mind, definitely have a sip or two, and go get yourself a gofre (waffle). Just make sure to pack your lipstick when you leave the house, because you’ll want to reapply. You’ll also see many people dancing Sevillano, which is a special kind of dance native to Seville. It looks a little like flamenco, but much smoother, without the stomping and clapping. It’s more about turning, twirling, twisting. It’s a beautiful dance, and though I did not choose to, my host family told me that several of the previous host girls have taken dance classes during their stay to learn how to dance Sevillano before Feria, so they could dance Sevillano with the native Sevillanos. I was told that if I wore a flamenco dress, I’d have to dance, but luckily that was proven false.
Feria goes from about mid morning until the wee hours of the morning. I left around 5 AM the other day, and it was still going. Although I didn’t personally partake in a ton of eating and dancing within the casetas, the people watching is absolutely amazing. It’s said that every woman’s dress is designed to be different.
Throughout the week, there are several other spectacles associated with Feria that occur. The weekend before the Alumbrado, there is a show of the different horse-drawn carriages that will be around Feria, and they all move around the stadium to show off the horses and the carriages. It’s called the Exhibición de Enganches, and it takes place in the Plaza de Toros la Maestranza. There are also bull fighting shows. This is a controversial subject among study abroad students, because in traditional bull fights, they kill the bulls. And it’s not just one, it’s 6 or 7 per two hour show. There are two kinds of bull fights, though, one that kills the bull, and one that doesn’t. So many will go partake in these cultural shows as well.
Basically, Feria is a gigantic dirt fairground with a village of mini houses built for singing and dancing, and a carnival park for screaming and laughing. Overall it’s a huge, fun, crazy, exciting time, and it’s absolutely magical to watch. You’ll be instantly transported back in time.
The two festivals are complete opposites, but they’re both incredible to experience. Although many people spent the weeks traveling, I feel as though staying and participating helped me to understand the culture and history a bit better (I know, that sounds super cheesy to say), and I got some killer street waffles and churros. 10/10 would recommend. The festivals. And the waffles/churros.