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Easter often brings to mind colored eggs and chocolate bunnies, perhaps Easter bonnets and a parade. In Guatemala they have an even more colorful tradition for Semana Santa (Holy Week). Semana Santa is a time for solemn celebration. The stores close so people can participate in religious rituals and processions. Easter falls in the growing season so the indigenous farmers also pray to their old gods for a good harvest.
The biggest and most famous celebration in Guatemala is held in Antigua. Antigua was the capital of Guatemala when Spain ruled the country. People travel from far and wide to see the Easter celebration. Throughout the week there are processions to honor the final days of Jesus’ life. Each night a funeral band plays music outside of the church and people gather for food, drink and games. Before Good Friday the local people make big stencils of pictures of things like birds, flowers and religious symbols. They use these stencils to create alfombras de acerrin, or sawdust carpets, in the streets.
The designs are often intricate. They are made with colored sawdust, flowers, fruit, pine needles and other natural things. These beautiful pieces of artwork are to ready the streets for the religious procession that will begin early on Good Friday. To create these sawdust rugs, the locals work together and fill in someone’s image. Boards laying across the “rug” are used to add the details to the middle without messing up the work already completed.
Early on Good Friday morning the procession begins. It includes andas, or floats. The first has a statue of Christ bearing the cross. It is carried by men dressed in purple robes. The next has a statue of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and is carried by women dressed in black. The procession winds through the streets of Antigua that are adorned by the beautiful alfombras de acerrin. This procession is rooted in the Andalusian tradition and was brought to Antigua by the Spaniards. The andas can weigh up to a couple of tons and can require 50-100 people (or cucuruchas) to carry them.
By the afternoon of Good Friday the entire city is draped in black. Black crepe is hung on buildings and trees. People are dressed in black and walk through the streets with lanterns and burning incense. A man carries a crucifix and is followed by people carrying banners with Jesus’ last words on them. The image of Christ is laid to rest at 11 p.m. at the church.
Holy Saturday processions are dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The floats are often smaller and carried by women in their best clothes and sometimes in high heels. Easter Sunday is a happy celebration. Fireworks can been seen and heard throughout the city. The mood of the day is casual and joyful.
The beautiful sawdust carpets are amazing pieces of art, but they are destroyed from all the processions. They are walked over and the pictures are no longer there. To teach about Easter in Guatemala to my six-year-old, we read Sawdust Carpets by Amelia Lau Carling.
Then we picked areas to work on and put glue on them. I used a paint brush to try to get the glue to cover the areas. We started with the windows. When we got the blue for the sky, I realized we needed to trim the paper to have enough glitter to actually cover it.
Sources for this post:
Around Antigua: Easter Week in Antigua Guatemala
Adventure Life: Guatemala Easter Festival
Dalal, Anita: Guatemala:A Portrait of the Country Through Its Festivals and Traditions, Grolier Educational 1999.