Article by Sandra Kennedy
Pastel-colored homes, cobblestone streets, bougainvillea-covered walls and looming volcanoes offer the first glimpses of Antigua. The UNESCO World Heritage site embraces thousands of travelers wanting to experience this world-famed Catholic celebration commemorating the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Antigua, Guatemala comes alive with its annual “Semana Santa” Holy Week, held sometime between March 22 and April 23. The entire city participates in the solemn activities during the week with a joyous celebration on Easter. Spanish missionaries from Seville initiated this religious occasion during colonial times.
On Palm Sunday, “andas” or floats with images of the Holy Virgin of Sorrow and Jesus of Nazareth, are carried on the shoulders of purple-robed devotees. The floats weigh up to 7,000 pounds with 50-100 curcuruchas or carriers bearing their weight.
Funeral marching bands follow the floats, announcing themselves with sounds of slowly beating drums, clapping cymbals and deep-throated tubas. Thick incense creates a haunting, ghost-like fog. Crowds hush as the solemn procession passes by.
Monday through Thursday, similar processions parade through the streets in memory of Jesus’ final days. Devoted curcuruchas carry floats for a block, and then new carriers step in to carry them on to the next block. The ritual of carrying and transferring floats continues throughout the procession route, often lasting up to 12 hours. Standing room only crowds await each float’s church arrival at night.
On Good Friday, the participants dress in black. A float with a sculpture of Jesus carrying the crucifix leads crowds of mourners who pray silently and offer penance. In the afternoon, preparations are made for a mock trial and sentencing of Jesus Christ. Participants are dressed as Roman soldiers and even Pontius Pilate is represented. Eventually, floats covered with statues of the crucified Jesus come to rest at the church late in the night.
Holy Saturday’s processions are dedicated to images of the Virgin Mary of Sorrow. Women dress in their finest outfits and often wear high heels. Young children walk under the anda while their mother’s shoulder the immense float.
Easter Sunday is a day of rejoicing the resurrection of Christ. Fireworks, family meals, and celebrations continue throughout the day. Some of the most remarkable aspects of Holy Week are the luxurious alfombras (Arabic word for carpet) adorning the cobbled streets between processions. Families and friends begin preparations weeks and months ahead of the festival to create these elaborate offerings.
Sand is spread over the cobblestones to level them. Next, dyed sawdust in hues of black, red, yellow, purple, blue, and green are pressed through intricately designed cardboard stencils. Flowers, seeds, plants, vegetables, and pine needles add the final touches to these temporary works of art. The carpets’ designs reflect biblical symbols, Mayan traditions, and scenes from nature.
Soon procession marchers and heavy floats trample the once-beautiful alfombras, leaving only jumbled messes and flowers. Often, more than one procession passes over them. Within hours, another carpet is created. It is their way to honor Christ’s death and pay penance.
“Semana Santa” (Saint week) is a passionate sensory experience that mingles Spanish and Mayan traditions. It is a profound experience and well worth the trip.