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Conquer the Spanish Semana Santa Vocabulary in under 10 Minutes

Because Who Does This Week of Fiesta Better than the Latinos?

A Jesus float at a typical Domingo de Ramos procession.

Photo credit: Premsa Ajuntament de Torrent licensed cc by-sa 2.0

HomeBlogConquer the Spanish Semana Santa Vocabulary in under 10 Minutes

Festivals and holidays offer some of the best opportunities for rookie learners like you to show off your devotion to the Hispanic way of life and bring out that Latino in you. That’s particularly true in the case of Spanish because fiestas are what the Latinos are wired for. Speaking of fiestas, we are in the middle of arguably one of the biggest shindigs on the Latino calendar – the Semana Santa (Holy Week). With over two-thirds of all Catholics in the Solar System being Latinos, it’s no wonder that their Holy Week is the mother of all Holy Weeks, buzz-wise. So without wasting any more time on hyperbole, let’s get down to business.

7 Days of Holiness…and Partying

For those of you not “in the know”, Holy Week is what begins on Palm Sunday and goes on to cover days like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Zooming out further, this also happens to be the closing week of Lent, that 40-day period beginning on Ash Wednesday and during which you ought to fast and give up on pretty much everything fun. That should explain why this particular week feels more like a countdown to freedom!

A Jesus float at a typical Domingo de Ramos procession A Jesus float at a typical Domingo de Ramos procession
Premsa Ajuntament de Torrent licensed cc by-sa 2.0

The very name of this week in Spanish is Semana Santa. Semana is week and santa is holy. Think of semana as a fusion of siete (seven) and mañana (morning); makes it easy to remember, doesn’t it? If that doesn’t cut it for you, here’s a fun etymology fact that should. Semana used to be setmana back in the days of Old Spanish. And setmana itself descended from septimāna, a Late Latin corruption of Latin septimus (seventh). The number is the key all along. As for santa, it should be easy because saints are holy and so is this word. The rhyme should be all the help you need.

Domingo de Ramos

This is where it all officially begins. We lesser mortals call it Palm Sunday. This day marks Jesus entering Jerusalem for the first time as an adult, riding a donkey (burro!). Of course you already know this little backstory so no point dwelling on it here. So the name of the day translates into Spanish as Domingo de Ramos and the most obviously straightforward way to memorize it is by breaking it down into components. Domingo is Spanish for Sunday. Think of the day as one that dominates the rest of the week which is why we named it after the Sun in English, right? Dominate should lead you to domingo easily. Actually, this was kind of the idea behind its naming for real!

De (of) should be a no-brainer so we won’t bother with it here. Next up is ramos, plural of ramo. This one is Spanish for palm. Picture a lavish hotel in the sunny Las Vegas with its perimeter lined with exotic palm trees. If you’ve ever been to the city, this shouldn’t be hard to imagine as the place is practically littered with palm trees. Now name that hotel Ramada Inn. To most of you, the very name should automatically conjure up a typical palm-lined luxury hotel, ideally by the sea, anyway. Ramada and its palms together should be cue enough. By the way, ramo isn’t exactly the tree; it’s just the fronds. The whole tree has a rather simpler translation: Palmera. Sometimes, even palma works instead of palmera.

Miércoles Santo

This is Holy Wednesday or, as some prefer, Spy Wednesday. Just like the rest of the week, the day is pretty big in Spain and Latin America. The reason they call it Spy Wednesday is because this is the day Judas is said to have made a deal with the Sanhedrin to deliver Jesus for some quick dinero. Of course not all spies are evil, but this one was.

So let’s try to memorize this name with some trickery. Miércoles is Wednesday and we’ve already dealt with santo. The name derives from Latin dies Mercurii (day of Mercury). Mercury was one of the Roman gods who also lent his name to one of our planets. But that might not help you much since that’s got nothing to do with how the day got named in English. So we’ll try some creative word-association. Wednesday was named after Mercury and it happens to be the exact middle of the week. Let’s combine the two facts and see what we get. Imagine a giant – and by giant, I mean big-enough-to-play-marbles-with-the-Sun giant – alien who is bored and dangerously close to our Solar System. Out of boredom he decides to have fun rearranging the planets and winds up moving Mercury right between Earth and Mars making it kind of the middle planet in the System. The picture is too wacky to forget and the rhyme between Mercury and miércoles is too strong to miss.

Jueves Santo

Known as Maundy Thursday in the English-speaking world, this day marks the famous Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples in Jerusalem. The word Maundy comes from Latin mandatum and refers to the “washing of the feet,” a religious rite observed to commemorate Jesus performing the act before the said Supper. In many ways, the idea symbolizes hospitality and solidarity, at least that’s what the Bible implies.

Although the day has several names in English – all less commonly used than Maundy Thursday – including Holy Thursday, Covenant Thursday, Thursday of Mysteries, and Sheer Thursday, it has just one in Spanish which makes things much simpler for you learners. Just stick a “Holy” before the name of the day and you got it down. Jueves is Spanish for Thursday. Maybe not by pronunciation but by spelling, this one looks very similar to Jupiter, the god after whom the day was named. If you’re any bit familiar with the Roman pantheon, you’d know he was the king of all gods, often also known as Jove. That’s where we get the expression “by Jove” from. Now Jupiter also happens to be the god who handled lightening and thunderstorms which is funny because on the Norse side, the portfolio belonged to Thor! And Thor is behind Thursday. See how the dots connect? Think of a particularly stormy Thursday night and you’ll recall both Thor and Jupiter which will lead you to jueves. Slap it with a santo, capitalize the phrase, and you have your Maundy Thursday in Spanish.

Viernes Santo

Friday is perhaps the most jubilant of all weekdays – maybe because it’s payday? And since that’s when you get your paycheck, it makes sense that you plan all your expensive dates on that day because dates cost dough. Dates also facilitate love, an emotion governed by the Roman goddess Venus. See? Even the Romans appreciated the idea of Friday-night dates which is why they named the day after Venus! Dīēs Veneris (day of Venus) is what they called it. This is what later corrupted to just viernes in Spanish. So the rhyme between Venus and viernes and the connection between Friday and dating – ergo romance, ergo Venus – should ensure you never forget viernes again.

Like in the rest of the Catholic world, Good Friday in Latin America and Spain is a pretty solemn affair (after all Christ was nailed to the cross that day, not something you’d wanna celebrate) and Churches are typically draped in dark colors of mourning. This day is almost universally marked by solemn processions carrying figures of Jesus and Mary through town. People dress up in biblical costumes and reenact the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion also known as Via Crucis. It’s like a worldwide Bible-themed cosplay! The biggest, or at least one of the biggest, of such events takes place in a place called Iztapalapa, not far from Mexico City.

Sábado de Gloria

This is the last day of the Holly Week and commemorates the day before Christ’s crucifixion. Although the day is known as Holy Saturday in English, it’s not translated literally as such in Spanish. They rather prefer something like “Saturday of Glory”! Sábado is Saturday and gloria is glory. Of all days, this should be the easiest to memorize because Saturday happens to be the original day of Sabbath as mandated by the Old Testament which is why the Jews still observe it as such. And sábado sounds very similar to Sabbath because the two words belong to the same etymological family-tree.

Now why this particular Saturday is “glorious” should be anyone’s guess. And glory and gloria already sound too similar to warrant any memory black magic. So Sábado de Gloria is Saturday of Glory and now you know how and why.

Traditions involve symbolic burning of Judas, the notorious traitor who snitched on Jesus for some plata (silver). This might not sound extraordinary as how else would you condemn a villain from 2,000 years ago? Setting effigies of Judas on fire seems to be the obvious thing to do. However, Mexicans being Mexicans,they give a whole new twist to the tradition. The figures are made of cardboard or, more often, paper-mache much like piñatas and made to look more like Satan than human. They are ideally supposed to represent Judas but that’s hardly fun enough which is why many Mexicans make them to resemble their most hated politicians!

Domingo de Pascua

This is your Easter Sunday. Although not a part of the Holy Week, it makes sense to include it in any discussion involving the latter because of their close proximity. We already know domingo but pascua sounds new. Context should have told you by now that it translates into Easter. What it fails to tell you is how. To understand pascua, you’ve got to understand the very history of Easter.

As a Christian you might already know how the idea of Easter draws on the older Jewish tradition of Passover. Although the reason behind the two traditions are entirely different, the fact that Easter derives its idea from Passover is well-documented. This is why the Romans named this day pascha, the Latin derivative of Hebrew pesakh. If pascha doesn’t sound familiar yet, recall paschal. That’s the official English adjective for both Easter and Passover. That’s how we get expressions like paschal moon. From Latin pascha it was an easy transition to to Spanish pascua via Vulgar Latin.

If you still feel nervous about remembering pascua, remember the name Pascal. Like you guessed, this last name is actually a derivative of pascua and means of or relating to Easter. You can imagine Blaise Pascal or any other Pascal that you might be acquainted to, as having their birthday on the Easter Sunday. Even if that’s not true,  who cares? All that matters here is the rhyme between Pascal and pascua. Oh and please don’t hold your breath for any Easter bunnies of chocolate eggs because there aren’t any in the Spanish-speaking parts of the world. Those are American ideas and best left to the Americans.

There you go, all the important days of la Semana Santa, firmly cemented in your active memory for life. Of course there’s a whole range of things to talk about this week given its importance in the lives of Spanish speakers around the world. But we’ll save those cultural tidbits for another post. Don’t want to overwhelm you, you see. Now go ahead, dress to the nines and brave the Mediterranean (or tropical) sun, and soak up the Semana in its native glory.


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