History and Tradition of Semana Santa in Guatemala
La Semana Santa (Holy Week)—also known as la Semana Mayor (Major Week)—is the celebration and commemoration of the passion of Christ. In many Latin American countries, it’s one of the most important weeks of the year.
Preparations for the celebration began months before Semana Santa. The dates of Holy Week shift from year to year, but it always takes place during March or April.
La Cuaresma (Lent) is the preamble to Holy Week. Every year, it begins in mid to late February. Those who practice Catholicism begin to prepare for the Holy Week during this time, through fasting, penances, and other traditions, like not eating meat on Fridays.
La Semana Santa in Guatemala is magical and ancestral. Keep reading this blog post to discover why and how Semana Santa is celebrated in Guatemala! Learn about all the traditions that make this holiday so important to the Guatemalan people.
A Brief History of Semana Santa in Guatemala
Semana Santa has been celebrated for centuries. The tradition began in Europe during the Middle Ages. Eventually, it spread to America, the Caribbean, and even some places in Africa. To this day, Holy Week is celebrated in each country in its own unique way.
The first Christian procession in Guatemala took place on March 10, 1543, in the city of Santiago de Los Caballeros—known today as Antigua Guatemala. It’s a religious tradition that has been practiced for hundreds of years.
During la Conquista (The Conquest), Spanish conquistadors imposed Catholicism upon the Maya, the native people of Guatemala. Mayans believed that three gods were the creators of the world, so the Christian concept of Trinity was easy to understand. The idea of the Virgin Mary was assimilated because she was associated with Ixchel— the goddess of the moon and life in the Mayan cosmovision.
Lastly, Mayans were used to transporting important people via palanquin—a covered litter for one VIP passenger, consisting of a large box carried on two horizontal poles by four to six bearers—so they found the idea of processions familiar.
To this day, this sincretismo religioso (religious syncretism) is still visible in many Christian traditions in Latin American countries, where Catholic and native images and symbols are fused into one celebration.
In 2008, UNESCO declared Holy Week in Guatemala to be patrimonio cultural intangible de la nación (intangible cultural heritage of the nation). This means that the tradition lives, changes, and persists as long as people continue with it.
What Makes La Semana Santa in Guatemala Special?
Holy Week in Guatemala attracts local and international tourists and believers from all around the world. What makes this Guatemalan celebration and tradition so attractive? Let’s learn about it!
Las alfombras, which translate to carpets in English, can only be described as pieces of art. Their purpose is to serve as a colorful path for the processions and as an offering to God. Some families have made alfombras for generations.
Las alfombras are planned months before Holy Week and assembled 24 hours before the processions take place. The carpets are made with sawdust of different colors, as well as flowers, and fruits. They depict Catholic images and symbols mixed with Mayan cosmovision and natural elements, as well as Guatemalan icons.
These vivid creations are a perfect depiction of la Semana Santa celebrations. Las alfombras can measure anywhere from several meters to half a mile long.
Los cucuruchos y las devotas
Los cucuruchos, which translates to “cones” in English, are the pennant devotees during Holy Week. They’re in charge of carrying the processions through the different steps of the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross).
In Guatemala, there are several kinds of cucuruchos from various brotherhoods and organizations. Normally, their robes are white, purple, and black, with details in gold and silver.
To participate in a procession, the devotees buy a “turn.” The devotees take part in the processions for several reasons. Some as a penalty to redeem from their sins, others because of tradition, and yet others to thank God for a miracle.
To carry the giant floats, los cucuruchos call on their physical, emotional, and mental skills to meditate and connect with their spirituality.
Las devotas are the female devotees who participate in the Semana Santa processions.
Las andas procesionales
The andas procesionales (processional floats) are wooden structures that carry the images of Christ and the Passion through the streets of Antigua Guatemala (and many other cities and towns) during Semana Santa.
These processional floats are decorated according to the themes that the Catholic church and the brotherhoods set for each year. Some of them are illuminated for a nighttime procession on Good Friday.
The sizes of processional floats vary greatly. Some are so small that they can be carried by children, and others are so big that streets and blocks must be closed so it can go through.
In Guatemala, the longest one—which is used for the image of El Cristo Yacente (Christ Lying) from El Calvario church—is 25 meters in length and has 140 “arms,” which means it has space for 140 cucuruchos to carry it. It weighs around 2.5 tons. The processional parade on Holy Thursday, with this float and one for the Virgin Mary, lasts around 19 hours!
Las Imágenes Religiosas
Some of the religious images used in the processions are more than 500 years old. Some were brought from Spain and Europe, while others were made in Spanish colonies in the Americas.
These images are clothed in expensive robes and clothing. The cofradias (brotherhoods) are in charge of their restoration and cleaning.
Picture this. You’re standing among thousands of devotees, tourists, and curious culture seekers waiting for a procession. The sun is shining high in the sky and you hear hundreds of conversations happening at the same time.
Suddenly, silence overcomes the masses, and you hear the melancholic tune of the funeral march played by a marching band. The smell of myrrh and incense is strong, and the sound of hundreds of feet slowly marching can be heard.
You hear the grunts of effort of those carrying the processional float and the hushed prayers of those around you. The atmosphere is one of respect and solemnity, as well as community and gratitude. A collective sense of awe and amazement is in the air.
It’s Never Too Early or Too Late To Learn Spanish
No description of la Semana Santa can compare to the real-life experience of it, and speaking Spanish can make your travels much easier and more enjoyable! Learning Spanish will help you with that!
What better way of putting into practice what you learned than planning your next vacation for Holy Week in Guatemala? There is something magical about being able to communicate in Spanish with the locals of a Spanish-speaking country. Sign up today for a free 1-on-1 Spanish class with one of our friendly native-speaking teachers here at Homeschool Spanish Academy. With more than 10 years of experience teaching Spanish, we offer specially tailored Spanish packages!
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