Antigua, Guatemala (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) puts on the largest Easter celebration in The Americas.
Activities in Antigua begin on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and reach their climax on Good Friday when the quiet town’s streets are thronged with solemn spectators. It is estimated that around 200,000 people flock to this Colonial town every year to watch the colorful Semana Santa celebrations between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.
There is lots to see and experience and a guide to phrases will enhance your time here !
CUARESMA – The Spanish word for Lent, which is celebrated in Antigua with processions every weekend for the five weeks leading up to Semana Santa. If you can’t make it to Antigua for Easter week (or if you can’t get a hotel room in town over Holy Week as most are booked up to a year in advance), you can still catch one of Antigua’s Lent processions.
SEMANA SANTA – The Spanish phrase for Holy Week which runs from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday.
PASQUA – The Spanish word for Easter.
ALFOMBRA – This is the Spanish word for “carpet” and that’s exacty what these temporary pieces of street art are meant to be–fancy carpets which pave the way for the andas in each procession. People spend as much as they can on alfombra ingredients which include flowers, luridly dyed wood shavings and sawdust, fruits and vegetables even glitter and tiny Noah’s Arcs. Some are hand-made and, thus, imperfect. Others are created meticulously using stencil cut outs and exact measurements. We found ones to love in all styles. Alfombras are typically created by an entire extended family on the cobblestone street in front of their home but local businesses create alfombras too.
PROCESSION – A religious parade which always leaves from and returns to a specific church. Processions tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection using elaborate floats (called andas, see below) full of iconography. More than a dozen major processions (and many smaller processions) take place day and night in Antigua during Semana Santa. The procession tradition is said to have started in Guatemala in 1524 and, today, most Semana Santa processions include two main andas. The first carries a Jesus (carried by men) and the second of the Virgin Mary (carried by women). Each procession is named after the specific Jesus and Mary that adorn the floats (i.e. Jesús De La Merced, Jesús El Peregrino, Jesús Del Milagro). Some last for 15 hours and all cover many miles.
ANDA – An enormous hand-crafted wooden float which weighs up to 8,000 pounds and is carried by up to 100 people. Dozens of andas are paraded around town during Semana Santa and each carries a different tableau on top depicting a scene from the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. These scenes are changed every year, but their meaning remains the same. Some of the andas are antiques and some are new. Each church has their own own anda of varying sizes and the main characters from the andas (Jesus, etc) spend the rest of the year in niches in their home churches. The andas are lit during night processions when people push generators along the procession route behind the floats. Jesus always looks to the right from on top of the anda so keep that in mind for your photos !
COPAL – A natural tree resin which is burned as incense by men and boys swinging incense burners in front of the main anda. Processions on Saturday seem to have the most incense. Our theory is that on Saturday processions only include one anda with Mary on top (Jesus is not included because he’s been crucified and not yet risen). The Saturday andas are carried exclusively by women which leaves many men looking for a role to play in the processions so they grab incense burners.
PURPLE – During the weekly Cuaresma processions and the first half of Semana Santa, hundreds of men in Antigua put on a silky purple tunic and sash with a head dress or hood because it is the liturgical color of Lent and some believe it symbolizes Jesus’ pain and suffering and emulates the color of a robe that covered Jesus. The costume switches to all black on Good Friday afternoon following Jesus’ crucifixion.
VIERNES SANTO – “Holy” Friday or “Good” Friday is the day on which Jesus was crucified. The Semana Santa celebrations in Antigua reach their peak on Viernes Santo (not on Easter Sunday) with four major processions in town and very large crowds. The action starts at midnight on Thursday with the Peregon de Romanos (parade of Romans). Some processions begin at 4 am on Friday morning and some don’t finish until 6 am Saturday morning. Graphic and emotional re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus also take place inside churches on Viernes Santo and by 3:00 pm everyone has changed out of their purple clothes and into black clothes in mourning for the crucified Jesus.
EASTER SUNDAY – The day Jesus is said to have risen from the dead marks the end of Semana Santa but Easter Sunday is not the peak of the celebrations. That honor goes to Good Friday. Processions on Easter Sunday are celebratory with fireworks, people waving yellow and white flags and throwing confetti in the air.
MARCHAS FUNEBRAS – This is the Spanish phrase for funeral marches. Music plays a big role in Semana Santa processions, cueing various actions and setting an appropriately somber mood. The procession bands (which are paid to perform), are heavy on drums, brass and wind instruments and they play a repertoire of more than 100 marchas funebras, mostly written by Guatemalan composers. Some of the marchas funebras bear a resemblance to dirges played by brass bands.
CUCURUCHOS and CARGADORAS – These are the men and women, respectively, who carry the andas. Each pays about Q10 – 50 quetzales (roughly US$2-6.) to the church for the privilege of taking a turn (turno) carrying the anda. Children, who carry smaller andas in their own special processions, pay less.
Only men carry andas with Jesus on them and these can weigh up to 8,000 pounds and require 100 men. Only women carry andas with the Virgin Mary on them and these can weigh up to 3,000 pounds. During each procession, these enormous andas are carefully choreographed along specific routes through city streets, around tight corners and over an obstacle course of cobblestones and flower-and-vegetable-strewn alfombras. Originally done as penance with the faces of the bearers covered, it’s now clearly an honor to carry the load of an anda. Every carrier gets measured to ensure that each group of 40-100 bearers is of relatively the same height. You can imagine what would happen if the heights varied too much. It’s also said that the tallest bearers get the honor of carrying the anda out of the church. Bearers usually carry their anda for one block then an artful switch is made. Many come back to carry again later in the procession. Each Cucurucho wears a paper tag with the number of their turn and the number of the actual “arm” of the anda they need to be placed at.
ROMA – What would the crucifixion story be without Roman centurions? Many men and boys play this role and march ahead of the main anda in processions wearing fairly elaborate costumes which include armor and capes and menacing spears. Though it’s hard to look too tough when your helmet is topped by a bright red broom…
TALL BLAK (KKK) HOODS – Some of the Semana Santa costumes feature tall pointed hats that cover the men’s faces. Yes, they look disturbingly like part of the KKK costume but these versions have nothing to do with hateful racists. They’ve been worn by Catholic Brotherhoods in Europe for hundreds of years and are seen in Semana Santa celebrations throughout the world.
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