Viernes Santo: All About Good Friday in Spanish-Speaking Countries
Semana Santa, also known as Holy Week, is the final week of Lent, which culminates on Easter Sunday. This religious celebration has a longstanding, profound impact on Latin America and Spain; in fact, the entire week of semana santa is officially a holiday! For some people, this is a time of prayer, meditation, and ritual. Others take it as an opportunity to travel or to take a well-deserved break. Today, let’s look at some traditions and stories related to Viernes Santo or Good Friday, which is hands-down the most important day of Holy Week here in Central America.
Why Is Good Friday Important?
Good Friday, or Viernes Santo (meaning “Holy Friday”), is canonically considered to be the day of Jesus’s crucifixion. It is a day of mourning for Christians all over the world, a day to remember the grief his followers must have felt during that bleak time.
Why is Holy Week on a Different Date Each Year?
A question that arises when reading up on Lent and Viernes Santo (Good Friday) is: Why do we commemorate the day of Jesus’s death on a different date each year? The answer is deceptively simple.
The Gregorian calendar, the calendar we use today, was conceived over 1500 years after Jesus’s death.
Plenty of debate and speculation surrounds his specific date of death, with theories that utilize astronomy, moon patterns, archives of religious celebrations, and Apostle accounts to try and pinpoint the exact moment of his death. However, we can understand that the reason why it’s always on a different date is because calendars were different (and less accurate) back then.
In both Spain and Latin America, procesiones are the bread and butter of Semana Santa celebrations. I’m going to talk about them shortly, so I recommend giving our post on Holy Week a quick read so you’re up to speed on what procesiones are and how they work!
Legend of the Jacaranda in Guatemala
In Guatemala, Holy Week is a big deal. The cobblestone streets of Antigua get awe-inspiring makeovers, and religious practitioners and tourists alike flock to this picturesque international town. Amongst the many Holy Week folktales, there’s one revolving around the Jacaranda tree. The story goes something like this:
Once upon a Good Friday, cloudy weather mantled the skies as acolytes carried the statue of Jesus across the town streets to commemorate his death. It was a day of sadness and mourning, whose stillness was broken by the sensation of water droplets falling on the acolytes’ foreheads and shoulders. Their sadness quickly turned into alarm, for they had to protect Jesus and his long, purple robe from the impending rainfall.
The only shelter they could find was an old, dried out Jacaranda tree. They quickly gathered all the blankets, tablecloths, and sheets they could find to put over the tree and protect the valuable statue. The rain fell swift and hard, and it ended as quickly as it had come. When the acolytes removed the sheets from the tree, they were amazed to see that the once dry branches were now brimming with life. Then, the Jacaranda’s purple flowers fell upon the acolytes and the statue. The tree was weeping with the people, for nature also mourned the passing of Christ.
And that is why on Semana Santa every year, the Jacarandas are in bloom and carpet the streets with their flowery tears.
Moral Lessons and Oral Traditions
It’s no secret that grandparents have plenty of wisdom to share with us, and Latin American grandparents have a special way to convey their teachings. Not only do they use famous Latino proverbs, but they also use superstition to educate their grandkids. While some of these rituals have religious roots, others are used as opportunities to teach a child how to behave.
On Viernes Santo at 3:00 p.m., most Catholics will say a prayer to commemorate Jesus’s passing, since that’s the time of death that’s generally agreed upon. Certain guidelines take effect afterward, like avoiding contact with water for the rest of the day.
Prior to Jesus’ resurrection, many believed that evil would be set loose upon the world. That’s why everyone had strict rules about what to eat and how to behave. All household chores had to be done before Viernes Santo, no meat was to be eaten, and fasting was a common practice amongst Catholics.
Some of the old Semana Santa traditions are remnants of Latin America’s cultural heritage. For example, they used to say that cutting your hair on Viernes Santo would ensure a healthy, long mane for the rest of the year. Practices like this were common before colonization, so it’s not far-fetched to think some of these were the result of the indoctrination of Catholic religion into the native cultures of the American continent.
Worse yet, kids who would stick their tongue out or raise their hand to hit someone would be told that their limbs would turn into snakes or fall off. This is a common, though rather ineffective tactic to teach the kids how to behave, and these kinds of silly rules seeped into Viernes Santo. Fortunately, they are not as prevalent now as they were 30-40 years ago.
Similarities and Differences Between Spain and Latin America
Since Catholic tradition was brought to Latin America by Spanish colonizers five centuries ago, it’s no surprise that many of our traditions are almost identical. In Spain, they also celebrate with processions and religious celebrations.
The difference lies mostly in the names of things and kinds of food eaten during this time. For example, if you recall from our Holy Week post, we call our float carriers cucuruchos, while in Spain they are referred to as costaleros.
Also, egg hunts and the arrival of the Easter Bunny are way more prominent in Spain than in Latin America. In my experience, I only see the Easter Bunny in grocery store marketing campaigns every year! This may also be due to culture, since Spain is closer to northern Europe than we are, and it’s speculated that that’s where the Easter Bunny was originally conceived.
How Are You Going To Celebrate Viernes Santo?
At the time of writing, Guatemala is currently on lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have a curfew and everything! This means that on Holy Week (April 5-12), most of us are going to stay at home with our families. Even if you’re not religious, you can still enjoy some quality time with loved ones.
If you want to put your time at home to good use, consider taking a free Spanish class with Homeschool Spanish Academy. Most of our teachers are Antigua residents and they can tell you all about their experience with Holy Week. Remember to stay home and stay safe!
Want to learn more about Latin American culture? Check these out!
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