Catholic Traditions of Holy Week and Easter in Latin America
There’s no time like Easter in Latin America! Otherwise known as Holy Week or Semana Santa, Easter is one of the most important and widely celebrated Catholic traditions in Latin America. Every year during Easter, people dress up, they grow quiet, they make noise, they eat certain things and stop eating others, they organize parades, they play music, and go to church; they do all of these and more to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Keep reading to learn more about some of the most important Catholic traditions of Holy Week and Easter in Latin America.
What Is Holy Week?
During Holy Week, people celebrate, commemorate, and remember the final week of Jesus’ life, also known as The Passion of Christ. Holy Week is also the most sacred week in Christianity, and it lasts seven days—hence the dame. Dates vary. The Sunday before Easter is called Palm Sunday, and it marks the beginning of the Holy Week. Each day of the Holy Week, in Spanish called Semana Santa, has a name and an event of Jesus’ final days it commemorates.
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Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos)
On Palm Sunday, people honor the time Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem.
Holy Monday (Lunes Santo)
According to the gospels, Jesus did three crucial things on Holy Monday. First, he cursed the fig tree, which represents Israel and the people who didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah. He kicked merchants and customers from Jerusalem’s Temple, accusing them of turning into “a den of thieves.” And he responded to the questioning of his authority.
Holy Tuesday (Martes Santo)
On this day, Jesus told his disciples that Judas Iscariot would betray him.
Holy Wednesday (Miércoles Santo)
On Holy Wednesday, Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, and a religious tribunal condemns Jesus.
Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo)
The famous Last Supper occurred on Maundy Thursday. The Paschal Triduum or Triduo Pascual begins on this day.
Good Friday (Viernes Santo)
On Good Friday, Jesus gets captured, he’s punished, given the crown of thorns, crucified, dies, and is buried.
Holy Saturday (Sábado Santo)
On Holy Saturday, people celebrate the Easter Vigil, where they wait for the resurrection of Christ.
Easter or Resurrection Sunday (Domingo de Pascua or Domingo de Resurrection)
On Easter, people celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, three days after he died on the cross. Yes, three days. Scripture says, “three days.” In that culture, as throughout the Bible, the day begins with sunset, not sunrise or midnight. Also, three days doesn’t mean 72 hours. It means three different days marked by sunsets.
Recommended reading: How to Learn Spanish by Reading the Bible
Catholic Easter Traditions
As with any other holiday, Easter, Holy Week, or Semana Santa has a bunch of traditions. Processions, reenactments of the Passion of Christ, food or the prohibition of certain foods, silence, solemnity, etc. Let’s have a look at how Easter is celebrated most often.
A common denomination of Holy Week is the processions. They do it in Colombia and Argentina; they do it across Latin America. They do it in Spain. In Italy. Vatican City. Poland! All over Europe! Undoubtedly you have seen them. A group of people wearing ceremonial outfits (tunics, coats, hats, ropes, canes) carry the figure of a saint. They carry the saint out of a church, take it across a determined route, and take it back inside the church. Musicians and marching bands escort the saint, playing traditional music. In Latin America, the processions’ carriers walk on top of colorful carpets made of sawdust. In Jerusalem, people reenact Jesus’ entry into the city. And the saints people carry often depict scenes from The Passion of Christ. People who don’t participate in the ceremony can watch it from a distance.
Processions date back to medieval times.
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Catholic communities across the world often put on performances during Holy Week. They most often reenact The Passion of Christ or Stations of the Cross, also called the Via Crucis, which refers to the series of events that occurred the day Jesus Christ was crucified.
The Via Crucis consists of fourteen scenes or stations:
- Jesus is condemned to death
- Jesus takes up his cross
- Jesus falls for the first time
- Jesus meets Maria, his mother
- Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross
- Saint Veronica cleans Jesus’ face
- Jesus falls for a second time
- Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls for the third time
- Jesus is stripped of his clothes
- Jesus is nailed to the cross
- Jesus dies on the cross
- Jesus is taken down from the cross
- Jesus is laid in his tomb
Catholic schools, Catholic universities, community theatre groups, churches, and other collectives perform these two moments of Jesus’ life and death.
Each adaptation is different.
Most commonly, the actor who portrays Jesus carries the cross. However, others take things a bit further. In Mexico City, the actor who portrays Jesus also wears a real crown of thorns. In the Philippines, hooded penitents flagellate themselves using bamboo sticks. Also, in the Philippines, Jesus is literally nailed to the cross. Finally, in Kenya, those who play Roman soldiers whip the actor playing Jesus.
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Food Restrictions During Holy Week
Have you ever wondered why Catholics don’t eat red meat on Good Friday? According to Christianity, Jesus died for our sins on Good Friday, meaning he sacrificed his flesh. So to honor Jesus and his sacrifice, the Catholic Church encourages people and kids over 14 to not eat meat on the anniversary of Christ’s death.
Similarly, Catholics don’t eat lamb, chicken, beef, pork, ham, deer, duck, etc. Fish and any seafood are acceptable, though, as well as milk. There are no limits or special instructions for beverages, though, during Holy Week, not even alcoholic drinks.
Also, on Good Friday, Catholics are encouraged to fast, and some Catholics choose to give up a favorite food or a habit for that day.
Check out: Kids Guide to Fruits and Veggies in Spanish
Holy Week Across the World
As we have seen, Holy Week traditions vary from country to country. Though most do processions, for example, it’s also interesting to learn some of the specific ways people celebrate Holy Week across the world.
In Mexico and Brazil, they burn figures of Judas. Also, in Brazil, believers dress as angels. In Peru, they additionally reenact the last supper. In Poland, families make an Easter basket filled with traditional foods on Holy Saturday, then they take the basket to mass, and the priest blesses it; the basket remains untouched until Resurrection Sunday.
Also, in Poland, they throw water at each other. In Bermuda, people fly kites. In France, they make a giant omelet. In Florence, Italy, oxen pull a cart across the city. In Hungary, men throw water at women.
Tell us, what does your family do during Easter or Holy Week?
This Easter, Learn Spanish!
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