Sawdust carpets adorned with brightly-colored designs and cut fruit line the streets, giant carved floats sway on the backs of local men and women, and depressing dirges creep out of battered horns. Ceremony is high with marching Roman soldiers and elaborate crucifixion ceremonies as Guatemalan communities come together to mourn Jesus' crucifixion and celebrate his resurrection and the close of Lent.
This is Semana Santa (Holy Week). And in Guatemala, no place takes to the occasion like the town of Antigua. We've never experienced a lead-up to Easter quite like it. The slideshow and video below show why.
The Elements of Semana Santa, Antigua style
A collection of local townsfolk carry various floats – sometimes as long as ten hours – through the city streets. Swaying together to manage the load, the float-bearers make their way in an impressive demonstration of strength, dedication and stamina.
So too, family and community. Float-carrying fathers walk hand-in-hand with their sons. Mothers, too, carry their baby girls. Waves of purple, white and black consume the streets.
Until Friday afternoon, men are dressed in purple. After the crucifixion ceremony at noon on Good Friday, they change their robes to black. Throughout the day, women remain dressed in black and white, their heads covered in scarves.
Musica Triste (Sad Music)
Floats are often preceded and followed by musicians warbling semana santa music through tired instruments. Dirges feature heavy, slow brass tones punctuated by foreboding drums. A Spanish teacher aptly described it “sad music.” And while the float carriers switch off throughout the day, the musicians are in it for the long haul, playing sometimes for an entire morning and afternoon.
Click on the video below to hear and see for yourself.
Holy week carpets are surely a visual highlight. Townspeople craft them by hand from piles of sawdust, dyed sands, cut fruit, berries, pine fronds, and corozo palms. Although the carpets require hours of patient labor and the effort of entire neighborhoods, they take only seconds to be destroyed by the marching processions.
The final product is fleeting, temporary; the joy is clearly in the creation. Or perhaps more appropriately, the annual ritual creation of the alfombras serve as a metaphor for the cycle of life, death and rebirth (thanks to @llmunro on Twitter for this insight).
As we admired our favorite carpet on Good Friday morning, a local man explained to us that alfombras are borne entirely of private initiative. Families and communities work together to pay for, design and create the carpets. And there's no sense returning next year to see your favorite design, for each year features new stencils and designs.
In the epitome of dedication, the neighborhood just south of Escuela de Cristo joined forces to fashion a carpet almost 200 meters long. When we spoke to some neighbors, they had been at work almost 17 hours and still had a few hours more to go. But they laughed and they were upbeat. That the procession would pass in the dark with few onlookers at 1:00 AM did not matter to them. Their work, their effort, their spirit – that was reward in itself.
Fortunately in Antigua (in contrast to some places in the Philippines), there is no live body involved in the crucifixion ceremony. Church officials, dressed entirely in black, tie a statue of a bloodied Jesus to a cross and raise the cross in a fully-packed church. Although one ceremony takes place at the main cathedral, we chose to view another more intimate ceremony at the Escuela de Cristo church.
Even though this is obviously all a reenactment, the music and crowds conspire to make the event vaguely and eerily emotional.
Several hours after the ceremony, men dressed in black carry another float, atop which the statue of Christ crucified (el señor sepultado) lays in a glass coffin.
Semana Santa Street Food
Every good festival needs good food.
While you could find the usual street food suspects – pupusas, chiles rellenos, tostadas, grilled meat – well-represented during Antigua's Semana Santa festivities, local street stalls also featured holiday treats like pepian, fish (dried or fried), plantains cooked in mole sauce, and empanadas filled with sweet milk.
It comes as no surprise that the street food areas were some of our favorite places to hang out. The mood was particularly festive in front of El Calvario church, where multiple generations of families passed time together on blankets or in the open-air backs of their pickup trucks.
While we admit to missing biting off the ears of a chocolate Easter bunny or two, it's an exchange we're glad to make for the opportunity to experience Semana Santa in Guatemala. Although we found the event both overwhelming and somber at times, it served to underscore the importance of family and community spirit.
A fitting context from which we wish you a Happy Easter.