The highlights of the the celebrations are the processions. A series of parades with people dressed in the clothes of priests and monks while carrying wooden statues of events in the life of Jesus, per catholic biblical tradition. The most famed are those that take place in the Southern cities, especially Seville, where the procession participants carry the statues directly on their shoulders, carrying weight that can cause them to bleed. People walk together, crying. In the Northern half of Spain, people are a little less dramatic in their dedication to the tradition. However, they are as colorfully celebrated. I attended processions in Santander and Palencia.
Many of the traditional clothes are startling and disturbing to anyone from the US, due to the resemblance to the racist group, the KKK. However, these hoods have a much older history and tradition than any group founded in the US. They are worn as a way to keep one's identity secret while giving penitence.
The robes come in a variety of colors, which are associated with the particular procession taking place. Some people bear crosses, some bear flags, and others just walk, barefooted.
The statues on Holy Thursday in Palencia represent the eleven phases of the crucifixion, including everything from the last supper and the washing of the disciples' feet to the crucifixion itself and the tears of the Virgin Mary.
Spanish Catholicism reveres the Virgin Mary as one of the most important biblical figures. Often art pieces and statues dedicated to her are the most gilded and elegant. In the processions of Holy Thursday, she was the climax point of the march, carried as the second to last figure, the largest carried statue in the whole batch. Fresh flowers surround the bejeweled, mourning mother. As this one passed our eyes, I listened to the crowd murmur about how beautiful she is.
Semana Santa is one of the most important celebrations in all of Spain, but brings interesting challenges for travelers. If you arrive by car, or even on foot, to a place where a procession is taking place, you may have to wait a full hour before you can pass. If you think you're going to eat out or do some shopping during these festivities, think again. Especially in smaller towns and cities, holidays mean that everything, except emergency services, closes. Most cities have mandatory closure of stores on national holidays, Sundays, and during lunch hours. Some restaurants and bars can be open, but many close voluntarily.