New York City has New Year’s Eve. Río de Janeiro has Carnival. Antigua, Guatemala has Semana Santa, one extraordinary week of elaborate religious festivities that lead up to Easter Sunday. Over the course of the holiday, this cobblestoned city of pastel-hued houses and crumbling ruins becomes a backdrop for incense-infused religious processions, elaborate holy vigils, and exquisite street carpets made of sawdust, pine needles, and flowers. There are thousands of visitors, men in costume, women in black, and events that start as early as 4:00 a.m. It’s one incredible production.
This week, I worked in Antigua from Monday through Wednesday. Our office–like pretty much every office in the country–had off yesterday and today (Friday), and so Shon traveled to join me here, where the country’s biggest Semana Santa celebrations take place. We’re still in the midst of all the goings on, but I thought I’d share a quick overview of what exactly Semana Santa is all about.
Over the course of the week, local churches host religious processions during which enormous andas–wooden depictions of Jesus and Mary that can weigh more than 6,600 pounds–are carried through Antigua’s streets on the shoulders of 60 to 80 cucuruchos (men) and cargadoras (women). Hundreds of people rotate in to carry the andas during any one procession and switch out every block or so. It’s a slow-moving march that also includes incense carriers, funeral bands, and costumed participants, and some last as many as 15 hours.
Prior to hosting a religious procession, a church will organize a holy vigil (or velacione), during which it sets up an elaborate biblical scene in front of its main altar. A vigil usually comprises statues, flowers, candles, and “carpets” made of sawdust (see below). The one that I attended on Wednesday night featured huge statues, a light display, and a gorgeous sawdust carpet surrounded by an ocean of chiles, watermelons, pineapples, carrots, and myriad other produce. Rumor has it, there was a cage of birds, too—though, I missed those. (I didn’t have my camera with me on Wednesday night, so the photos below are from other churches.)
Aside from featuring creative biblical scenes, holy vigils are also notable for all that goes on in the streets around the hosting churches. Here, you’ll find hundreds of vendors selling everything from chuchitos and chiles rellenos to tostadas, grilled corn, freshly fried plantain chips, churros, and cotton candy. Families gather to eat, drink, and eat some more.
For many, though, the real highlight of Semana Santa is the carpets (or alfombras) that people create in the streets before a religious procession passes. These carpets are made by hand and most often with sawdust, though you’ll see pine needles, flowers, and wood shavings used, too.
Making an alfombra is an elaborate process that begins days—if not weeks—in advance. Sawdust is sifted so that it’s very fine before it’s dyed. A design—which can range from religious to geometric to cheeky—is chosen and a mold is made. Several hours before a procession is scheduled to pass, a layer of sawdust or sand is spread on the street to create a level canvas on which the carpet-makers can work. A fine mist of water is sprayed over top, as well as during the carpet-making process, to ensure no sudden gust of wind blows it away (wind, rain, and the roaming street dog are the biggest threats to a carpet). Family and friends gather to work on hands and knees, painstakingly filling in their mold with tiny pinches or spoonfuls of sawdust until their colorful creation is complete.
Carpets are laid out for every procession, with the more elaborate ones appearing the Thursday and Friday before Easter, when some of the biggest church processions roll through. The only people allowed to walk over the carefully crafted street art are the men and women who carry the andas, and beneath their heavy, shuffling feet, the carpets are quickly destroyed.
Well, that’s all for now. Shon and I are off to partake in another day of Semana Santa celebrations. Enjoy your Easter! And if you think of it, please eat a Cadbury cream egg for me. Sadly, bunnies don’t deliver to the tropics, and chuchitos and churros just aren’t the same.