The Semana Santa procession is the highlight of Cuaresma and Semana Santa Guatemala. They sway along through bedecked streets, accompanied by funeral marches played by bands that trail behind them.
Each Semana Santa procession starts out with lines of cucuruchos, who often walk with the procession, even once their turn is over. Children with incense walk in between these lines and men with special poles to lift the power lines as the float passes come along, as well. There is usually a banner for the hermandad that is putting on the Semana Santa procession.
Following these is the float with Jesus Christ, the largest float. This is carried only by men. Behind this is the men's band, playing funeral marches, then the women's float, with the Virgin Mary and the women's band (comprised of men) behind this.
To keep the way clear for the floats and the bands, men walk beside them, on the edge of the street, holding a length of thick rope that runs along the side of the Semana Santa procession and keeps the crowds outside the processional area.
While you can see Semana Santa procession in any large town and even a few of the smaller ones in Guatemala, there's no doubt that Antigua is the biggest tourist attraction. That's not just for foreigners, either . . . Guatemalans travel from around the country to be in the colonial time during this holiday and you'll often find them sleeping in the parks in family groups.
The capital has perhaps the most impressive Semana Santa procession in the country, with some of the largest floats available. It garners an excellent turnout, but still can't compare to the popularity of Antigua's Semana Santa procession.
During the Semana Santa processions, many people adorn their homes with cloth banners in purple and white. Buntings, purple and white flowers (lilies are particularly popular) and ribbons are also used.
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.
Float designs change each and every year. While the figures remain the same (albeit with new clothing most of the time), the scenes in which they are placed are very different. The actual stage can be several feet tall, with fake boulders, cellophane waterfalls and even bushes and trees around the main characters. It takes the entire year to plan and create these beautiful scenes and the bigger the float, the more elaborate the design.
Lights are usually incorporated into the floats, since processions continue late into the night and even into the early morning hours, if they fall behind, which is common. These are run by generators which are wheeled behind each anda, tended by at least one or two men. This means the Semana Santa procession is also accompanied by the drone of the generator whenever the band stops playing.
The figures used on the andas or floats are from the churches. Throughout the year, these figures stand in their respective alcoves within the church, brought out each year to parade through the streets. These vary drastically in style.
Some of the figures are hundreds of years old and have been used in hundreds of processions. They range from Christ, resplendent in his robes, to a battered Jesus, stumbling beneath the weight of the cross. Some of these are quite graphic and complete with a pained look on Christ's face, as well as lash marks and blood dripping from his body.
Mary is similar. She is portrayed as a radiant mother following her son, and when he is crucified, she comes behind, looking sorrowful and with tears running down her cheeks.
The various saints make appearances in the Semana Santa procession, as well. These may be included on the same float as Jesus, or they might be on their own, on small floats that are carried by just 4-6 people.
Saint John and Mary Magdalena always accompany Mary, carried separately behind the float that Mary is on. Some processions include more saints, it really depends on the size of the town and how many figures they have available.
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 Semana Santa procession. Its meaning has evolved over the centuries and is now used to talk about the actual person doing the carrying.
The heavy floats have to be carried through the streets and people pay for the privilege. It's considered to be a form of penance, to wipe away your actions of the previous year and start anew. People come from all over the country to carry the floats in the larger cities.
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. However, many younger carriers wear slacks or even jeans to the processions and don't cover their heads.
These men are dressed up as Roman centurions, with helmets, swords and armor, as well as short leather skirts. These are elaborated in an interesting manner, with what appear to be brooms on their heads, usually red, but with the occasional blue or green brush instead. The centurions also wear capes, in the same color as their helmet brushes, and use sandals. Many carry spears instead of swords, and shields are also common. Again, the costume will depend on the area.
The Romans walk with the Semana Santa procession, often leading them and clearing people from the processional route and are from the Hermandades but do not carry the floats. On occasion, you will see a centurion with a horse-drawn chariot, particularly on Good Friday.
The Palestine Squad also accompanies some of the processions, dressed in red capes and pointed hoods. They carry palm branches or crests on poles and never carry the float.
Incense is used in all the processions, throughout Cuaresma and Semana Santa. However, the amount used increases as Holy Week gets closer until it is nearly impossible to see the floats from a distance. Children (and occasionally men) walk ahead of the procession, swinging incense burners to let air in through the holes and cause the incense pieces to burn faster, creating more strong smoke. The scent of Semana Santa stays with you for months.
Pieces of incense can be purchased in the market. The incense burners are elegant metal containers that hold the burning incense and have plenty of holes to let the smoke out. They hang from chains which the lid slides up and down on, making it easy to swing the incense burner and spread the smoke about.
Marchas funebras or funeral marches are unique to Guatemala. Nearly all of them are written and composed by Guatemalans, though there are a few used by Chopin and other well known composers. Funeral marches can be considered a native music for Guatemala since they are fairly unique to the country and bring a solemnity to the proceedings.
Santiago Coronado is considered to be the author of some of the very first marchas funebras still on paper, including "La Fosa", which he wrote in 1888. However, there are hundreds of other marches in existence, enough that some processions can go 12-18 hours without ever repeating a song. The marches are performed by bands that may be actual professional bands, but more often are made up of assorted musicians contracted to work during the entire week on assorted processions. The bands are almost entirely made up of brass and wind instruments, as well as some percussion instruments. The most notable of these is the large bass drum that beats out time between the songs, which are played one per block. This music, somber as it is, sets the tone for the processions and is also used to help the cucuruchos keep moving at a steady pace. The floats sway in time to the music as they move slowly along the street.
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