Directly translated, Semana Santa is Holy Week, the week before Easter Sunday. Semana Santa Guatemala, which is a largely Catholic country, is perhaps the biggest holiday in the year, with processions, traditions and even specific foods. People often travel from smaller pueblos to attend the celebrations in larger cities like the capital, Antigua, and Xela (Quetzaltenango).
Semana Santa Guatemala runs from Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) to Holy Saturday (Sabado de Gloria), but the majority of celebrations are on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the week. These days usually see throngs of people in the streets, since they don't have to work and there are multiple processions in the larger cities.
The tradition of Semana Santa Guatemala began in the second half of the sixteenth century, brought by the Spanish settlers, all faithful Catholics, who came to settle in Guatemala. The first Semana Santas were held in Santiago de los Caballeros (Antigua in its heyday), which was the capital city at the time. It wasn't until later that the processions involved floats, funeral marches, banners and candles.
Preparation for Semana Santa Guatemala starts at least a month in advance. It's a complicated process that involves not only the Municipalidad, but also individual homeowners. In Antigua, the cobbled streets are repaired at breakneck speed to get everything smooth and secure for the processions and the passing of hundreds of feet.
Homeowners take great pride in painting their homes for the processions. That means the houses are bright and cheerful, with fresh new colors, just in time for everyone to see them as they walk with the processions.
To help keep people safe, particularly in areas that are frequented by foreigners, extra police are stationed. They help keep petty crime to a minimum and use a network of radios to help lost children find parents, as well as giving directions to the lost pilgrims and tourists that arrive in town.
Each Catholic church participates in Holy Week by holding Misa or Mass every evening and by hosting the processions. The actual church doesn't raise funds or organize the processions, that is left up to the hermandades, or the elders who work together on this with the backing of the church itself.
The floats for the processions are usually very large. They are built of wood, with carrying handles on either side for the cucuruchos to lift. Often, these floats have detailed carvings of flowers and birds, as well as scrollwork along the edges, making them even more beautiful. These are just the bases however, the real art takes place on top. Learn to make your own mini-float in our new book, Semana Santa 101...
While the word cucurucho now refers to the men who carry Semana Santa floats, the word originally meant a piece of cloth, paper or card that formed a cone, like the traditional hoods used for the processions. Its meaning has evolved over the centuries and is now used to talk about the actual person doing the carrying.
It's important to note that Las Dolorosas, the women who carry in the processions, are not dressed the same way as the cucuruchos. While there is not actual costume or specific dress code for women, they traditionally wear dresses or blouses and skirts, black or white, depending on the day, with scarves or veils covering their heads.
Alfombras or carpets are abundant in the streets of Antigua during Cuaresma and Holy Week. Originally, the alfombras were elaborated with flowers and feathers from birds like the quetzal, parrots, guacamayas and hummingbirds, among others, back in the 1500's. The Mayan traditions of using carpets made of flowers and feathers were mixed into traditions from the Canary Islands and Tenerife. Those traditions used colored stones, earth and flowers to create designs and there are mentions of these colorful alfombras all the way back to the 7th century.
It's thought that the alfombras are a form of welcoming Jesus into the town, much like people did with palm leaves back in his time. These days, aserrin (sawdust) is used in a variety of colors and with other materials to make the alfombras.
One of the more exciting things to see and a huge boost to the informal economy, are the salespeople who wait at the plazas in front of churches. This sight is called ventas, or sales. When the procession enters the church, they have a ready and usually hungry and thirsty audience of thousands.
Cuaresma (Lent) has its own processions. These tend to be every Sunday, but there are frequently smaller processions held during the week. To the outsider, it can be very confusing, though Guatemalans appear to know exactly when and where the processions will be.
The first procession of Cuaresma is on the first Thursday of Lent. Each city has its own processions, but the most popular in the capital (these are often replicated in other large towns throughout Guatemala) include:
There are many more processions that may be specific to each town, as well. Some, such as the Santo Entierros procession, are done multiple times. For example, in Antigua, La Escuela de Cristo and San Felipe both hold Santo Entierros processions. The processions generally follow the viacrucis, or stations of the cross.More processions are held on Sabado de Gloria, the Saturday of Holy Week, but Easter Sunday is pretty low-key in Semana Santa Guatemala.
Like any other major holiday in Guatemala, La Semana Santa food has its own menu, loaded with delicious foods of all descriptions. You'll find most of these being sold by street vendors that gather in parks and in front of the churches where the processions enter, but they are also eaten at home during the Holy Week. We've included some recipes, Semana Santa activities and coloring pages, and much more to help you celebrate Semana Santa Guatemala wherever you are.
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