Semana Santa
Holy Week - Easter

Holy Week    Carpets    Vigils    Processions
Sculptures    Glossary


Holy Week in Antigua

The observance of Semana Santa and Lent adds to the importance of Antigua (La Antigua) Guatemala.  The city was declared a National Monument by the Guatemalan government in 1944, a Monument of the Americas by the General Assembly of the Pan American Institute of Geography and History in 1965 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 (site number 65).

Antigua is famous for its Catholic celebration of Holy Week, which commemorates the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The entire city participates in the event, and thousands of national and international visitors flock to Antigua to witness the dramatic happenings. Taking place sometime between March 22 and April 23, the entire week is full of solemn activities that replicate the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ, culminating in jubilation on Easter. The special flavor of this event arrived with Spanish missionaries from Seville, who brought Andalusian flavor to the religious phenomenon during colonial times (Quintanilla Mesa, 1989).

The event begins on Palm Sunday, during which the venerated images of Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus Nazareno) and the Holy Virgin of Sorrow (Santisima Virgen de Dolores) are carried from their churches through the city on the shoulders of devoted followers who carry lanterns while dressed in purple robes with white waistbands. Similar processions that venerate images from various churches also occur on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, replicating the final days of Christ on the earth. 

On Good Friday the streets of Antigua are covered with natural, aromatic carpets (alfombras) of flowers, pines, clover and fruits, which the residents put together and place in front of their homes. There are all kinds and shapes. Some are very long, even up to a kilometer, with colonial, Mayan, Roman or other original designs. At 3:00 A.M., preparations begin for the mock trial and sentencing of Christ. Participants dress as Roman soldiers, Pontius Pilate and other participants in the drama. At 7:00 A.M., the sculpture of Christ carrying his crucifix is moved through the carpeted main streets of Antigua on the shoulders of his worshipers until early afternoon, when the image is replaced by another of Christ being laid to rest. 

At 4:30 P.M., Antigua becomes adorned with black crepe paper as thousands of people, burning incense and dressed in black, crowd the plazas and streets. A spectacular procession (procesione) is led by the man bearing the crucifix, with hundreds of followers (cucuruchos) carrying black banners and standards engraved with the final words of Christ and the pronouncements of God. Life-like images representing the archangels, the Stations of the Cross, the Cavalry, the apostles and many others are part of the silent procession through the streets, where multitudes pray quietly. The image of Christ is laid to rest in a church at 11:00 P.M.

Holy Saturday continues with other funeral processions led by the Image of a sorrowful Virgin Mary (virgen dolorosa), followed by numerous women dressed in black who commemorate her moments of sorrow at the side of Christ. Easter Sunday is a time of rejoicing, with early processions through the streets of a festive Antigua celebrating the Resurrection of Christ. Firecrackers are heard throughout the city, and masses are held in all the churches. The week-long ceremonies end that day, and residents return to their daily lives.

Carpets - Alfombras

There are two type of carpets (alfombras) made during Semana Santa. The carpets along the processional route are made by residents along the route who invite friends and family to assist them.  The carpets in the churches are made for the holy vigils (velaciones) and are made by the brotherhoods (hermandades).

Velaciones are held in the churches that have religious activities during the holiday.  These carpets are made by members of the brotherhood responsible for the sculpture.  The carpets are made in front of the religious figure on display and are surrounded by fruits, vegetables and candles brought as offerings to the church the day before.

The carpets along the processional route are made during the 24 hours prior to the procession.  If more than one procession goes down a street a new carpet is made for each procession.  Carpets express both religious as well as contemporary messages in the designs.  Preparations for the carpets begin weeks, sometimes months, ahead.

Sand or sawdust is generally used to level the cobblestone roadway.  Sawdust is then collected and dyed in different colors.  Favorite colors are purple, green, blue, red, yellow and black.  Flowers such as bougainvillea, chrysanthemums, carnations, roses and other native plants and pine needles are also used.

Carpets are started the day before the procession and the construction is timed so that the carpets are finished just before the carriers of the float arrive so that carpet looks its best.

The carriers of the main float are the first ones allowed to walk over the carpet.  They are followed the rest of the procession.

Holy Vigils - Velaciónes 

There is a velacióne before each procession.  The Holy Vigils generally take place at the church the day before that Church's procession.  The vigils are organized by a brotherhood, and there are different brotherhoods for each sculpture that will appear in the processions.

The sculpture is moved near the church altar in front of a huge decorative paper backdrop.  A carpet is constructed in front of the sculpture.  Around the carpet is a garden scene or huerto  that includes fruit and vegetables, bread, candles, flowers and the native seed pod - the corozo.  

In the evening a funeral march band plays and outside the church a carnival atmosphere develops.  Traditional foods and drinks and even games are available.  

Processions - Procesiones

The religious processions are organized and carried out by the brotherhoods.  The brotherhoods (los hermandades) were originally called cofradías and are religious organizations.  The brotherhoods are either men or women, not both. It is thought that the carriers (cucuruchos) participated solely as a form of penance.  Today there is some degree of social status involved but the principal motivation is still a show of devotion by the carriers.

Each procession leaves from its church and follows a route through the streets of Antigua before returning to the church several hours later.  Purple is the color of the robes worn by the carriers up to Good Friday, then the robes are black to signify mourning.

Thousands of processional carriers participate in the processions. They are all members of the brotherhood that cares for the particular sculpture.  Some have participated in processions all their lives.

Processions generally begin with incense carriers and the brotherhood's banner, followed by the carriers and the float (anda).  Carriers will carry the float for a block and then a new group will take their turn.  Each turn is determined by the carriers' shoulder height to ensure that the float is balanced.  This is very important as the floats can weigh as much as 7,000 pounds (3,150 kilograms.)

A block behind the main float, the women carry a smaller float (size is relative here) with the figure of the Virgin Mary.  The women wear white in their procession before Good Friday.  Following behind is a funeral march band and two additional floats carrying the sculptures of San Juan and Maria Magdelena.

Sculptures - Imágenes

These are the religious sculptures that were made during the Spanish rule and can date back to the 17th century.  The faithful believe that the sculptures, or the figure, will grant the believer their request.  In some places in Guatemala, the sculptures are considered to be divine religious figures.  The sculptures are referred to as the religious figure not as a just a sculpture.  The sculptures also played a principal role in the conversion of the Maya to Catholicism as the Maya personified the sculptures with the stories of their own deities.

To view our English-Spanish Glossary of terms used during Santa Semana, click here.

For a description of the Holy Week Celebration in the highland city of Quetzaltenango, check out the following website: Casa Xelajú.

Other great links include:

 

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 Source: Culture and Customs of Guatemala, Lent and Holy Week in Antigua