When Easter arrives, people around the globe get ready to celebrate and enjoy the cultural festivities. Before this special holiday comes around, however, various members of the religious community take the time to recognize the significance of la Semana Santa (or known as Holy Week in English). Typically observed by Christians, la Semana Santa represents a time when people follow the themes that surround the life of Jesus Christ. Countries with predominantly Latinx/Hispanic citizens are heavily populated by Catholics who commemorate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in unique ways.
Semana Santa begins on March 28 and concludes on April 3. While the ongoing coronavirus pandemic may restrict some of the major gathering events usually followed during la Semana Santa, there exists no doubt that Holy Week will still be observed with a passion in countries like Spain, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and El Salvador.
The European country finds itself as being one of the most popular tourist destinations to visit during the Holy Week. Notable foods eaten during this time include espinacas con garbanzos, which is a chickpea and spinach stew, and torrijas, a sweet delicacy often served with milk, honey, and even spice.
Spain consists of Catholic fraternities and brotherhoods that often participate in processions that follow the events of the Passion of the Christ. Originating in the Middle Ages, these fraternities and brotherhoods involve members often donning what is known as a nazareno or a penitential robe. The reason as to why these members mask their identity is to reflect those past individuals from the medieval era who often needed to hide their identity as they did their penance during processions. That means that being in disguise allowed them to receive absolution for their sins. Some of today’s nazarenos carry candles or crosses during procession events.
Each region in Spain celebrates la Semana Santa differently. Prominent places that participate in the celebrations include Seville and Salamanca.
In Seville, one of the largest festivals is celebrated in the week leading up to Easter Sunday. The usual processions are held with sculptures of figures coming from specific scenes of the Bible. Known as pasos, these sculptures reflect a special antiquity and convey an artistic spirit. Some of these famous sculptures come from artists, such as Juan de Mesa and Juan Martínez Montañés. Musical groups also participate in la Semana Santa procession and play music. Instruments used include tambourines and cornets.
Salamanca also follows a similar procession to that of Seville. However, Salamanca represents one of the oldest places to celebrate the Semana Santa as the first Catholic confraternity became formed in 1240. Furthermore, in 1988, UNESCO designated Salamanca as a World Heritage Site proving that the region offers unique aspects that would complement the celebrations happening for the Semana Santa. The Salamanca procession also includes the pasos from notable artists, such as Luis Salvador Carmona, Inocencio Soriano Montagut, and Mariano Benlliure. In 2003, Salamanca was designated as a Fiesta of International Tourist Interest of Spain.
Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Spain will need to forego some of the celebrations that involve large gatherings. However, some religious services will still remain open with safety protocols implemented.
In Mexico, the community recognizes la Semana Santa as an important event to celebrate among children, adults, and the elderly. As a result, students usually obtain two weeks off from school (which usually includes the weeks before and after Palm Sunday) and various employers allow their workers to take some time off. Kicking off the religious celebration usually involves the churchgoers taking palm fronds and weaving them in the forms of crosses to represent the Crucifixion or other religious symbols. Some fronds usually get taken and burned into ash, which will likely be used for next year’s Ash Wednesday.
According to the Pew Research Center, 81% of Mexicans identify as Catholic, signifying a community with strong religious convictions. Indeed, throughout the country, many people come out and observe the reenactment of the Crucifixion on Good Friday. However, various regions throughout Mexico maintain some unique ways of observing la Semana Santa.
The most famous passion play takes place in Iztapalapa located to the east of Mexico City. With origins tracing back to the cholera epidemic in 1843, the organized play involved the work of hundreds of actors who often rehearse for the main event several weeks before. Transmitted through satellite television, the event receives attention from outside of Mexico and will likely be watched through this means as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Around 2,000 people who carry crosses, referred to as Nazarenes, participate in the major event and follow the leading actor playing Jesus. Many have advocated for the traditional passion play to be recognized as a cultural heritage of Mexico City through UNESCO.
The passion play still went on in 2020 without the massive crowds. In order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the event went on behind closed doors and was broadcast on television instead. A similar cancellation will occur this year.
In San Miguel de Allende, Holy Week celebrations usually feature processions occurring everyday for the duration of two weeks. One of the famous statues carried during the processions is that of a Jesus Christ statue depicted coming from the Sanctuary of Atotonilco, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In Taxco, Guerrero, Semana Santa celebrations include brotherhoods, similar to those of Spain. These brotherhoods include people who participate in the procession by wearing robes and hoods while bearing heavy statues or other items. Known as penitentes, these people dress up in anonymity in order to reflect a kind of suffering that they must endure.
During this week, one can expect to find Mexicans consuming various foods. On Good Friday, capirotadas, known as a kind of bread pudding is served to the hungry participants of la Semana Santa.
The celebration of la Semana Santa in Guatemala is unique in that celebrations involve elements of Catholic doctrine and Mayan culture. Present are special sawdust carpets, known as alfombras, featuring aspects that incorporate Catholic elements and Mayan symbols, such as the Holy Cross and butterflies. The alfombras feature a variety of bright colors and are made up of small items, like flower petals and pine needles. Hermandades set up these alfombras, which only last temporarily as people walk upon them during processions. In the aftermath of a procession, a clean-up crew sweeps away any debris that may still be left on the street.
Guatemala also represents a popular tourist destination for those wanting to participate in Semana Santa celebrations. While Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango may be notable locations where people visit during this time, many point out that Antigua Guatemala, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, seems to stand out with how it sets up its religious celebrations.
Antigua Guatemala features various alfombras often stepped upon by members of hermandades wearing purple robes and carrying statues of different religious figures. As the procession goes on, members of the hermandades often travel through the Santa Catalina Arc, a famous landmark of the city. Various churches in the city are highly involved in some of the processions and their activities range for some hours of the day.
However, processions in Antigua Guatemala have been cancelled in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Some religious members still engaged in some activity to commemorate the week such as by carrying large tree branches to reenact the Crucifixion.
This South American country holds the largest population of Catholics in the world. With a population that large, there exists no doubt that Brazil commemorates la Semana Santa in a unique way. After all, one of the largest events of the year, Carnival, is celebrated right before the beginning of the Lent season.
In Goiás, Brazil, one notable procession is known as the Procissão do Fogaréu, (which translates to the “Bonfire Procession”) and is usually dedicated to showing the stages of the imprisonment of Jesus Christ. During this kind of procession, hooded figures act as Roman soldiers who go and arrest a person playing the role of Jesus Christ in a reenactment of Jesus Christ’s imprisonment.
Another famous event that takes place in Brazil during la Semana Santa occurs in Brejo de Madre de Deus at the New Jerusalem Theater, known as the largest open air theater in the world. Every Easter, this location holds an outside viewing of a performance of the Passion of the Christ since 1951. The theater can hold up to an average audience of 8000 people.
While most Latin American countries usually do not celebrate Easter with the typical themes as seen here in the United States (Easter bunny, egg roll, etc.), Brazilians actually exchange chocolate eggs by the time the holiday comes around. Both supermarkets and local stores offer these treats to the community.
Brazil shares similarities with other Latin countries in how it recognizes la Semana Santa. Brazilians also create the sawdust carpets, which includes ingredients such as flour and wood shavings. Furthermore, tourists also come to the country and stay in hotels usually staying from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. This year, beaches and other popular tourist locations may be limited but some religious services will remain open.
In El Salvador, whether one is religious or not, everyone looks forward to Semana Santa due to the fact that everyone is able to vacation and spend time with family. The beach represents one of the most popular places to visit for the duration of the week.
Foods that Salvadorians consume during the week include those that involve fish such as torta de pescado as a way to abstain from eating red meat on Fridays. One notable dessert often eaten includes dulce de atado, which is raw sugar cane that can be turned into a delicious kind of honey. Jocotes are a seasonal tropical fruit that is sometimes frozen and served as a frozen treat.
El Salvador also sets up its own events involving its own alfombras with the biggest one being in the city of Sensuntepeque. These alfombras are made of salt, which is covered in food coloring to give off the bright colors that stand out. Congregations of religious people usually are the ones to help decorate the streets with these alfombras.
Various regions of El Salvador celebrate la Semana Santa differently. In the city of Texistepeque, locals dress up as devils and whip passersby at the start of the week-long celebration. Based on Catholic and indigenous culture, these demons are referred to as Talcigüines and are derived from mestizo origins. In the city of Sonsonate, a more solemn procession takes place. The Asociación Hermandad de Jesús Nazareno functions as the Catholic fraternity that contributes to setting up these processions.
The processions that occur in El Salvador usually are followed by some of the most devoted. According to one source, a procession in the city of Izalco took place for over twelve hours. Of course, the processions may be limited this year but some hermandades have used the method of livestreaming to broadcast some Semana Santa events like the Asociación Hermandad del Santo Entierro de Cristo de la Ciudad de Sonsonate.