The Spanish tradition of Semana Santa (Holy Week) arrived with the Spaniards to Guatemala in 1524. Almost 500 years later, Guatemala holds one of the most elaborate celebrations in the world. With grand processions, lavish floats and intricately designed alfombras (“carpets”), Antigua, Guatemala hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year who yearn to be a part of the religious and cultural festivities–a mix of Spanish tradition and indigenous cultural beliefs.
Holy Week is the week leading up to Easter Sunday, commemorating the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the people of Guatemala, there is no celebration more anticipated than Semana Santa. Although Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, religious celebrations actually begin up to a month in advance starting with the first day of Lent–Ash Wednesday.
Lent in Antigua, Guatemala
During the month of Lent, unique religious vigils are held every Friday and Sunday in a different church in Antigua. The church holding the vigil is decorated to commemorate a passage from the Bible leading up to Easter Sunday. Vigils begin at 9am and last until 11pm so the church remains open to various visitors traveling from near and far. Many of the sculptures on display have been preserved since Spanish colonial times. Visitors pray to these sacred sculptures before the figures are robed and carried in processions throughout the city.
Each church displays an ‘alfombra’ made from colored sawdust, pine needles, fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables. The fruits and vegetables are placed on the outside of the carpet as an offering to the saints. The ‘alfombras’ are constructed by la hermandad (“the brotherhood”) of the church, but during Semana Santa many residents and businesses work together to create an ‘alfombra’ of their own which can sometimes take up to 24 hours to construct.
Semana Santa in Antigua
The most important days of Holy Week are Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and finally, Easter Sunday. Beginning Palm Sunday–exactly one week before Easter–Guatemalans flock to the city of Antigua to commemorate the day Jesus entered Jerusalem. According to the Bible, he was received by the people with branches of palm trees and leaves in their hands, hence the name Palm Sunday. Palm leaves are collected and made into bouquets, adorned with flowers, and then blessed by a priest.
Colorful hand-made decorations and embellishments are used for the processions which take place at the famous churches of La Merced, San Francisco and Escuela de Cristo. Guatemalans hang curtains, cloth bows, and paper decorations of purple, red, lilac and yellow in doorways and windows to signify the suffering and royalty of Jesus. The procession on Palm Sunday includes andas (“floats”) displaying scenes of the figures of Christ and the Holy Virgin of Sorrow. ‘The brotherhood’ coordinates the processions, including the floats and cucuruchos (“bearers”). The floats can be up to 18 meters long, and require 50-100 ‘cucuruchos’, dressed in purple robes with white waistbands, to carry them throughout the procession. Holy shrines have evolved into complex works of art with sculptors and painters competing for the honorable position of decorating and creating scenes for Semana Santa. Similar processionals are held through Thursday, celebrating Jesus’ last days on earth. A band plays outside of the church as people gather for food, drinks, and games.
Holy Thursday & Good Friday
Though one of the more important processions begin on Good Friday, preparations actually begin up to 24 hours prior, making it imperative to include Holy Thursday in the narrative of Semana Santa. On Thursday, families and businesses start working on their original ‘alfombras’ which can sometimes take months to plan. Following their blueprint, everyone partakes in creating a dazzling ‘alfombra’ worthy of the destruction from a procession, signifying that neither life nor death are permanent. People typically work through the night to ensure the ‘alfombras’ are perfect for the procession early on Friday. Though some people might use stencils for accuracy, others use a free hand technique to construct ‘alfombras’ that are uniquely beautiful and imperfect.
It is said that it rains every year in Antigua on Good Friday beginning at 3am, and by 4am when the rain clears, processions from La Merced Church begin. The bearers swap their purple robes for black ones, while the previously colorful decorations strung throughout the city are replaced with black decorations to mourn the crucifixion of Christ. The floats depict scenes of Jesus carrying his cross, while marching bands walk behind the floats playing a solemn number to incite emotion. The ‘alfombras’ disappear as the processionals pass along the route, and participants immediately begin making new ones for processionals yet to come.
A second procession is led by the Escuela de Cristo church with floats depicting a mourning Virgin Mary. The floats are carried exclusively by women who are also wearing black to mourn Jesus’ passing. The streets are filled with sorrow as the roads clear, and the beautiful, colored carpets no longer brighten the cobblestone streets. Thousands of mourners, clothed in black, burn incense and carry lanterns. A figure of Jesus Christ is laid to rest in the church at 11pm. The masses pray quietly, while others openly weep.
Holy Saturday & Easter Sunday
The mood continues through Holy Saturday with more processions depicting the mourning mother of Christ. All floats on Saturday are carried by female mourners. Then at 10pm, the churches begin celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. Easter Sunday lifts the solemn mood of the city and replaces it with a festive atmosphere. Easter Sunday finds people smiling and cheering, children waving colored flags, confetti being tossed in the air, and fireworks lighting the sky.