December 30th 2018
Lent and Holy week in Guatemala, known as “Semana Santa” is one of the unmissable festivals of the world.
Featuring massive wooden floats among clouds of incense and funeral dirges, opulent religious marches fill the cobblestone streets of Antigua Guatemala every year during six weeks of Lent and Holy Week observances.
A tradition dating back centuries, the processions spill out of Antigua’s colonial-era Catholic churches, joined by thousands of local faithful and throngs of visitors eager to witness the vibrant spectacle. (2019 dates: March 6-April 21.)
As if Antigua’s charm, well-preserved historic architecture, and stunning volcanic setting weren’t enough, the annual Lent (Cuaresma) and Holy Week (Semana Santa) extravaganza heightens the town’s distinction as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Short-lived street art
Watching from church plazas, sidewalks, windows, doorways, and rooftops, people crowd along processional routes to catch a glimpse, a whiff, and the sound of the passing cortege.
Hours prior to a procession’s arrival, Antigüeños take to the streets, working reverently with buckets of sawdust, baskets of fresh fruits and flowers, and sacks stuffed with aromatic pine needles to create Antigua’s most famous Holy Week sights — colorful carpets (alfombras) over which the parades pass.
Families, hotels, and businesses all decorate the street in front of their property, creating blocks-long galleries of amazing but short-lived artwork, only to be trampled beyond recognition when heavy floats and their carriers file by.
Tracing to Eighth Century Spain, the street-carpet artistry in Antigua has evolved into months-long efforts as families work on their designs and collect materials well in advance. When the day arrives, they gather on the street — crouching, sitting, kneeling, leaning — to take their design from paper and onto a cobblestone canvas.
Quite often, the process starts with an underlayer of plain sawdust to create an even working surface. Next, families and friends layer on the colorful design itself, sprinkling brilliantly dyed sawdust into stencils to depict religious themes and convey messages of glory — and sometimes even political or humorous statements.
By day and night, curious onlookers file carefully around the open-air creations to appreciate their full artistry and watch designing teams at work. Even in the wee hours, Antigua’s street vendors offer a traditional Holy Week favorite, hot chocolate, and a range delicious street food.
Clouds of incense fill the air
Immediately preceding a procession, hundreds of purple-robed men and boys fill the street, some swinging censers burning copal incense. Then, through a thick cloud of incense, the first radiant float (anda) appears, perched on the shoulders of up to 100 male carriers (cucuruchos), all wearing royal-purple robes. Massive wooden platforms weighing up to 7,000 pounds, the hand-carved floats transport revered sculptures from the 17th and 18th centuries portraying scenes surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus.
A lone priest or other church leader becomes the first to set foot on the fresh-made carpet in the processional path. The float rocks slowly from side to side with each careful step its carriers take over the disintegrating carpet.
Next comes a smaller float, riding on the shoulders of female carriers (cargadoras), whose platform bears a likeness of a tearful Virgin Mary and perhaps other biblical women. A walking orchestra trails the floats, playing funeral strains on well-used brass instruments and drums.
From penance to privilege
In the 1500s, shouldering a heavy float was a task imposed as penance, though now it’s a highly sought privilege, with each carrier paying a modest fee to participate. And because some processions originate in towns outside Antigua, a single parade may last 10 hours or more. Thus, over 1,000 people take turns carrying the platform on the longest routes.
The Lenten season — opening on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019 — features one procession every Sunday, while several massive processions weave through Antigua on Holy Thursday (April 18, 2019) and Good Friday (April 19, 2019), among more than 60 in all during the six-week period.
In the grandest procession, men dressed in gold and red, portraying Roman soldiers, ride horseback and in chariots on Good Friday morning, shouting the news of Jesus’ condemnation as elaborate processions follow close behind.
After 3 p.m. on Good Friday, believed to be the hour of Jesus’ death, carriers in black robes emerge, hefting massive floats carrying a sculpture of Christ’s body inside a shining, gold-and-glass coffin. Women, often teary-eyed themselves, follow behind bearing floats of a grief-stricken Mary and her downcast entourage.
On Holy Saturday (April 20, 2019), images of Jesus remain out of sight, yielding to black-robed women who carry a bleak float carrying Our Lady of Solitude, a poignant sculpture depicting the sorrowful Virgin wearing her own black cloak of desolation.
Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019) dawns with an oddly peaceful atmosphere, given the intensity and enormity of the previous observances. Then, early in the afternoon, a lone church bell suddenly comes to life, clanging joyously as confetti pours out of its rooftop housing.
Applause and praise erupt from the crowd surrounding the church as its double doors swing open, revealing a sculpture of a radiant Jesus, standing triumphantly in the center of a small, brightly decorated float. The final procession of the season festively escorts the resurrected Christ through the streets to conclude another spectacular observance of Lent and Holy Week in Antigua.
For more information on Guatemala check out our articles on the great festivals for Semana Santa (Easter) and Guatemala’s unique Day of the Dead Kite Festival. Also find out about Inspirit’s unique eco community experience in the northern jungles of Guatemala within the Maya Archaeology complex and community at Uaxactun – something really not to be missed and is included in our “Guatemala Incredible” package and our “Guatemala Total” vacation.
December 30th 2018