Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is perhaps one of the best times to be traveling in a Catholic country. Just as the Buddhist, Hindus and other religions have their colorful celebrations of devotion, sacrifice, and religious fervor, that’s Semana Santa week for the vast majority of Catholic Guatemalans – and the fantastic part of Semana Santa is that you don’t have to be religious at all to enjoy it, you just need an appreciation for other cultures and liking festivals would be a plus.
I’ve already talked about the decadently beautiful carpets of Semana Santa –bright colors and innovative designs are gifted upon the processions as a devotional sacrifice for the gifts of the previous year.
Processions Galore During Semana Santa
It’s precisely these processions though that make up the other component of Semana Santa – and a big one at that. The processions really kick off on Holy Thursday and specifically reenact the last days of Christ, which means they are all pretty somber occasions.
The heart of each procession is the massive float carried through the streets by brightly purple-clad cucuruchos, or float-bearers. The cucuruchos are clad in purple all throughout Lent and throughout Holy Thursday (I’m told purple is the color of lent) and even the little kiddos dress in purple this week to join in the celebrations.
Each processional float represents the stages before Christ was crucified and it’s an incredible honor to carry one of these floats; Guatemalans sign up as much as a year in advance to carry a float and each person is given one city block in which to carry the load – some floats are so large they take 80 grown men!
Good Friday Dawns with a Somber Note
In addition to these elaborately decorative floats, each of the processions is accompanied by reenactors. Good Friday is really the day to see the true scope of Semana Santa – a quite and subdued hum floats through Antigua all throughout the early mourning hours on Friday as the most elaborate of the Semana Santa carpets are finalized.
The crowd patiently waits out the hours until the church doors open at four AM at four separate churches around Antigua. The Roman reenactors on their horses clomp into the streets, rapidly awakening any of the Semana Santa goers who were catching a nap in the nearby park. Then begins ten minutes of speech as the Romans list out Christ’s crimes and sentence him to death.
The Good Friday procession, the most somber and elaborate of the week, slowly exits the church once the Romans have read Christ’s sentence. The float only gradually comes into view through the church doors: it’s Christ, bent forward under the weight of the cross he’s carrying and the float is now carried by black-clad cucuruchos.
The Virgin Mary in mourning follows every Christ float in the processions
This single procession will take over 12 hours to make it all throughout every single main street in Antigua, consuming Semana Santa carpets along the way and wafting a scented fog of sage into every side-street and alley.
Amazingly, the musicians following the procession are the only ones in the procession who never trade out with replacements. They’re in it for the long haul and will play the slow and sad funeral dirges for the entire time, only taking small breaks as the procession attendees pass them water and food that they consume en route. As the processions pass the entire mood in Antigua sinks; and even the sky took on a darker tint as the potently scented sage and wafting music spread the message that Christ has been condemned to death.
Easter Sunday Cheer and Rejoicing
For all of the sadness of Holy Week, the Easter Sunday parade is significantly cheerier, although it’s surprisingly not well attended.
Even though it’s a much smaller procession, the dancing and singing is contagious and I felt too felt the compulsion to put a wiggle in my step as the Guatemalans performed impromptu pirouettes in the streets and enthusiastically waved yellow and white flags in honor of Christ’s resurrection.
There is a huge dose of Catholicism in the Semana Santa celebrations – it is Easter after all, but you don’t have to be even a lick religious to marvel in the contrastingly colorful and somber displays of devotion throughout Easter’s Holy Week – and I daresay that Antigua just may be the best place to truly experience Semana Santa in it’s fullest scope.