What is Semana Santa?
Trip Start Jan 06, 2010
29Trip End Feb 23, 2012
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* This name is not the correct name of the city but is used to reflect the desire of the US government to keep my exact whereabouts unpublished on my blog. And as usual this text does not reflect the opinions of the US Government and/or Peace Corps.
What is going on?
Last year I arrived in my town just a few days before Semana Santa. I had no idea what was happening, I had no idea where to be, I had no idea when things started. I did not understand anything. So last year in my blog I just posted photos. This year I am more connected in the community and knew who to call to get accurate information.
Last year as I was taking photos at an event next to my newly appointed counterpart, someone came up and said I should pay to take the photographs. Luckily, my counterpart stood up for me and said that I was a new member of the community and working for the municipality so I was allowed. The man frowned and walked away.
This year, I would arrive at well-hidden locations by myself and would know more than half of the people there. I would go around shaking hands and saying greetings before taking out my camera. Plus this time people would come up to me and ask them to take their photo because they wanted to document their participation in the events also.
Semana Santa is by far the most traditional, most spectacular, most colorful week of events in my town over the course of the year. There is no other time where there are so many activities that celebrate their culture. These events are not done for tourists (yet, I'm sure someday someone will figure out how to make a profit from it). They are done because they have been done for generations upon generations exactly the same way.
This post is super long, and there is no way to avoid that when trying to explain what happens here every year the week before Easter. If you just want to see an explosion of colors, look at the photos uploaded here. If you want to understand what is happening in the photos read more. If you want to see even more photos, look on my flicker site.
To make matters more interesting this was the first time I have gotten super duper stomach sick since coming to Guatemala. There seemed to be some nasty stomach bug in town that everyone was getting. And I was sickest at the peak of the events on Friday. Don't worry I took antibiotics and killed everything off.
I am only mentioning this because there is a lack of photos of some of the events this year, but I have too many photographs of them from last year. Hence the reason that there is more writing than photos on some things. I was able to sit on the sides and observe everything because I was in too much pain to walk around and snap the best photo. And to be transparent, I stole some photos from last year to explain some of the events here.
Before I can begin to explain Semana Santa here, it is necessary to have some background on what is happening with religions. Guatemala has a special sort of Catholicism that they called Mayan Catholicism or Syncretism. It is a mixture of traditional Mayan beliefs and Catholic beliefs. This is especially apparent here in Tz’utujil City* where for example a "Saint" called Rilaj Mam is carved into the altar in the Catholic Church.
The Mayan Tz’utujiles are very proud of never having been completely conquered by anyone. When the Spanish arrived to Lake Atitlan in the mid 15th century there was two ethnic groups living on the lake. The Kachiqueles to the north and the Tz’utujiles to the south. The Kachiqueles joined forces with the Spanish in hopes of dominating over all the other ethnic groups. The Tz’utujiles did not win the battle obviously since some speak Spanish now – but most importantly they did not loose everything.
In a way to keep their culture they "accepted" what the Spanish told them, but hid their beliefs among them by renaming things. They worship Catholic saints, but have transferred the spirits and powers of their traditional idols to the Catholic saints. For example Mary represents the Moon and Jesus represents the Sun.
Wikipedia defines religious syncretism as the "blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions."
The Catholics were lucky that their primary image was a cross with four points. This cross was very similar to the image of the tree of life that is what the Mayans worshipped. The four cardinal points are a very important part of all Mayan ceremonies. So when the Spanish came in with guns and there was either and accept or die approach, they accepted but in their own way.
As I have thought about it more this is actually what some of our traditions are like also. The blending of pagan practices with ideas from the Catholic Church to make it easier to accept by new converts. For example “Yule or Yuletide ("Yule-time") is a winter festival that was initially celebrated by the historical Germanic people as a pagan religious festival, though it was later absorbed into, and equated with, the Christian festival of Christmas.”
Semana Santa or Holy Week.
The week leading up to Easter Sunday is called Holy Week in Guatemala. In the Catholic Church here, the biggest day to celebrate is Viernes Santo or Holy Friday. As opposed to Easter Sunday in the United States. The Evangelical Churches do not celebrate this week with as much fanfare as the Catholic Church. And all the events described here are part of that Catholic syncretism that is a combination of customs.
Calendar of Events
*Since Easter changes this calendar reflects the dates that passed this year. But the days of the week are always respected
As I am absorbed here in what is happening around me, I forgot what Easter should be like. So I did some research on what the bible and the Catholic Church say about this time. I wanted to see how in sync the events actually are to what the Mayans in my town are doing. Most of this information came from the ever-trustworthy Wikipedia (this is said with sarcasm). So if there are errors in my information please tell me. Anything in quotes is from Wikipedia.
Lent. It is 40 days long and is 6 Sundays leading up to Easter Sunday. There is a procession with different saints every Friday of Lent here, but they are not very well attended in this town. According to the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, where he endured temptation by Satan. Thus, Lent is described as being forty days long.
Wednesday – 1.5 weeks before Easter, a group of men set out to walk over the hills and down to the coastal area of Guatemala to bring back fruit. This is the oldest tradition. It used to mark the initiation into manhood. A man could not be married without having brought back fruit. It was a year of activities with other young men culminating in a strenuous 3-day hike. The women also had other activities to do to become women – but no hiking.
Now the mayor has to pay the men to walk to keep the traditions alive and no one is initiated to become a man or a woman. The hike is about 25 kilometers one way to a town called Chicacao. One of the important fruits they bring back is cacao, which a long long time ago was used as currency amongst the Mayans.
Traida de la Fruta, the arrival of the fruit
Saturday – 1 week before Easter, the men return heroically at 10 am from the coast with heavy crates (rumoured to weigh 100 pounds) on their backs overflowing with different fruits. The fruit will be used to decorate the town for Semana Santa. There is no connection between this activity and anything in the bible.
Domingo de Ramos, Palm Sunday
There was a little scandal this year because the new Pastor at the Catholic Church wanted to change traditions. Traditionally there was a procession with a statue of Jesus on a donkey leading the way. The cofradias (this will be another blog post to explain the cofradia system) or indigenous leadership of the town, would carry the statue and the church members would follow behind with palm leaves.
This year the Church organized that the members of the church met at the soccer field on the outskirts of town to walk into the centre of town and the church following big flat bed trucks with super loud music. Then the two groups met and mass was held outside.
“Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter Sunday and commemorates Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an event mentioned by all four Canonical Gospels (Mark 11:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, and John 12:12-19).
While at Bethany Jesus sent two disciples to retrieve a donkey that had been tied up but never ridden and rode it into Jerusalem, with Mark and John stating Sunday, Matthew Monday, and Luke not specifying the day. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem the people there lay down their cloaks in front of him, and also lay down small branches of trees and sang part of Psalms 118: 25-26.
In the three Synoptic Gospels, entry into Jerusalem is followed by the Cleansing of the Temple episode, in which Jesus expels the money changers from the Temple, accusing them of turning the Temple to a den of thieves through their commercial activities.”
So this activity is more closely linked with what the Catholic Church is doing by remembering that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Lunes Santo, Holy Monday
Lavado de Ropa
As I mentioned briefly there are many saints in the Catholic Church one of which is called MaXimon (pronounced ma – shi – moan) or Rilaj Mam. He is the most traditional saint in our Town and there are only a few of him in all of Guatemala. He is not allowed into the church, but during Semana Santa he goes out of his house to a special chapel that is built next to the Catholic Church in the centre of town.
Since he is going to be going out into town later this week, on Monday the cofradia or brotherhood that takes care of him, walk all his clothes to a sacred part of the lake where there is a spring from one of the volcanoes exiting into the lake. This sacred part of the lake happens to be on the land of one of the foreign owned hotels in town that has been there for 20 years. Since building he has always allowed them to come down and wash Maximon’s clothes there a few times a year.
On lunes santo at 9pm a small group of the most traditional Tz’utujiles bring Maximon’s clothes down to the lake, wash them under the moonlight and the twinkling of thousands of fireflies, and take them back to the cofradia house to dry.
This activity obviously has no connection with the bible or the Roman Catholic Church.
Martes Santo, Holy Tuesday
Traida de la Carrosa
Besides the fruit that the men bring there is a special fruit pod called carrosa that is a fruit of a palm tree (still needs to be confirmed). The pod is about three feet long. It has a tan, hard shell. When it is opened the aroma is very strong, unique, fruity earthy scent. They hang the inside all through the streets as decoration. This smell blends with the incense to give the perfume of semana santa. Also the children use the shells as sleds. Obviously this has no connection with the bible or the church.
The men leave on Sunday walk down to a farm close to Chicacao to harvest it. It is a 12 hour walk there, then they turn around and walk back to arrive on Tuesday morning at 10 am on the outskirts of town. The elected mayor and the indigenous mayor, and their respective posies, meet them to walk into town together with a marching band, the local radio, the women of the cofradias, and any interested onlookers.
Also on Tuesday the fruit boxes from Saturday are opened. Then have been locked inside a room at the cofradia de Maximon for three days. Men haven taken turns watching the fruit and keeping incense burning non stop to make sure the fruit ripens. It is very important that the fruit be ripe, not green or spoiled, for the decorations. So the opening of the fruit is an important step, but it closed off in the house of Maximon. That night the fruit decorations are prepared.
Miercoles Santo, Holy Wednesday
Maximon va a la capilla
“In Western Christianity, the Wednesday before Easter is day that Judas Iscariot first conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty silver coins. This event is described in the three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-12, Luke 22:3-6.”
I have heard of other activities around Guatemala that involve the Judas type figures, but nothing like those are celebrated in Tz’utujil City* on Wednesday.
Here it is the day that Maximon goes to jail at the elected mayor’s office and then goes to the special chapel next to the Catholic Church. Around 11 am he leaves his house at the cofradia and is taken to the mayors office where he sits on a bed of pine needles with the decorated fruit, the men of the brotherhood, and the indigenous mayor. They say he is going to jail to communicate about his activities that year.
At 1 pm he is taken out of the office, dances down the street and up to the chapel where they hang him on a ladder. This is the only time of the year that he occupies the chapel. I was struck this time at how similar it was to the figure of Jesus hanging on a cross – I assume the borrowed the symbol to make it acceptable to the Catholic leadership.
This year was special because the Ambassador of the United States to Guatemala, Stephen McFarlin, came to attend the activities. He made a small speech about supporting traditional Mayan culture and the need to continue to keep the traditions alive. I was impressed that he drove 7 hours just to sit with Maximon for a few hours. He grew up in Peru and thus has a soft spot for indigenous cultures around the world. His presence helped people in my town realize that they do have unique traditions that they should not let die out.
Interestingly enough, as I said the elected mayor has to pay for the men to participate in the brining of the fruit and he has to sit with Maximon to listen to his sins. The current mayor is Evangelical. He does not believe in any of these things on a religious basis – he supports them as part of his ancenstral culture.
Jueves Santo, Maundy Thursday
Maundy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles as described in the Canonical gospels. This I am sure everyone knows about.
Here they also commemorated the Last Supper by having 12 children dress up, with name tags on, as the 12 apostles. They sat at a long table with a white table cloth. The pastor of the Catholic Church blessed the food they received. The women of the cofradias cooked a 12 course meal of all the traditional foods that they eat here during Holy Week. Then there was mass outside. My stomach wouldn’t let me sit through mass, but rumor has it that the old pastor used to wash the feet of some of the congregation during the service.
There is also a special event at midnight on Thursday – that again my stomach would not let me view. The figure of the saint San Juan el Cajaro is raced up and down the main street of town by men. The men who are able to carry him are rumoured to be the strongest most virile men. There is no connection here with bible events, and I can’t elaborate on it because I didn’t see it.
Viernes Santo or Good Friday
Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his death at Calvary. “According to the Gospel Jesus agonizes on the cross for six hours. During his last 3 hours on the cross, from noon to 3 p.m., darkness falls over the whole land. With a loud cry, Jesus gives up his spirit. There is an earthquake, tombs break open, and the curtain in the Temple is torn from top to bottom. The centurion on guard at the site of crucifixion declares, "Truly this was God's Son!" (Matthew 27:45-54)”
There is a lot more to the story, but the above is what is relevant to the proceedings here. At 9 Jesus is put on the cross in the center of the church.
At 12 he is hung on the cross.
Mass starts at 1 and finishes at 3, then the procession starts. Jesus is taken down off the cross and the casket then makes its’ way down the steps and around town. Just before the procession hits the second set of steps Maximon leaves his chapel and follows Jesus. Then he goes home while Jesus continues his procession until 6am the following day when he re-enters the church. The streets of town are adorned with beautiful sawdust “carpets”. Only the procession can walk over them. Above the carpets are the fruits brought from the coast.
I went to mass on Friday and it was packed. There are usually pews in the church, but to make more people fit in they took them out. It was shoulder to shoulder, standing room only. It was interesting to see how when it was time to kneel during the service people would take turns alternating getting down on their knees because there was simply not enough space. Thankfully it started to storm during the service so it was not very hot, but it was still a dense human mass of smells and humidity.
As I mentioned there is a duplicity in the customs. Similar to a lot of Catholic Churches around the world, they built them on top of holy sites of the local people. The church here was built in 1547 so it is very likely that they did build it on top of a Mayan temple. Evidence that is supposed to prove this is the round staircase leading to the church. The other remnant of Mayan religion is that there is a hole in the floor of the Catholic Church.
The primary belief system of the traditional Tz’utujiles is ruk’uux kaay, ruk’uux ruch’uleew. This means the heart of the sky and the heart of the land are interconnected. It leads people to call this town the umbilical of the world. Meaning that this is a literal connection between the underworld, everything of this world, and the world of the sky. That is why in a lot of Mayan towns the sacred sites are either on the top of mountains or in caves. Here one of the sacred sites is a hole or portal in the floor of the Catholic Church. The only time the tile is removed from the floor to open it is on Good Friday.
This day commemorates the day that Jesus Christ's body laid in the tomb.
According to the Canonical gospels, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion.
On neither Saturday nor Sunday were there special traditional cultural activities. There is mass on Sunday, but without any processions. I did get woken up to fireworks and music at 5 am on Sunday – but these were from the Evangelical Churches.
This year I was still recovering from my stomach flu and didn’t make it out of bed. But last year I went to the service outside in the plaza of the Catholic Church. And they did one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The whole plaza was dark, but packed with people each holding a candle. In the corner there was a big bon fire. The priest lit a candle from the bon fire and then the let the light be passed from person to person until each candle was lit and the plaza was glowing. It was beautiful to see symbolically how the light of the church can pass between people and light up the world. Then they held mass with everyone holding their own light.
Ascension of Jesus
The Ascension of Jesus is the Christian teaching found in the New Testament when the resurrected Jesus was taken up to heaven in his resurrected body, in the presence of eleven of his apostles, occurring 40 days after the resurrection.
I found myself at 5 in the morning walking to the Catholic Church to participate in the "traditions" for the ascension. Walking through the streets at this hour were many men going to their field with machetes and oars to paddle their boats across the bay. When I entered the church I was surprised to find quiet a few people. Also there was candles set up around the hole in the church floor. In the back corner everyone was kneeling and praying to the sculpture of Jesus on the Cross. After two hours of singing, they had mass. I never would have expected that lots of incense and singing would have a better wake me up effect than coffee.
At 3:30 in the morning the traditional mayor of the town and his posse took the coffin that Jesus was in during the procession on Easter Sunday back to the church for safe keeping until next year.
Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Christ after the Resurrection. It is celebrated seven weeks (50 days) after Easter. I have not heard that anything happens here to celebrate this.
What does it all mean?
If you have read all of that, thank you. I write this more for myself and so that there is an explanation out there is the digital world. I find it amazing that so many traditional details are kept alive through the whole week. I am curious how long this culture will continue in the modern world.
Just because there are traditional events also does not take away from the fact that people are good Christians here. They read the bible, go to church, pray and do want to celebrate what Jesus did. There is a very small percentage of the population that are traditional. The majority of this town is Evangelical – and the majority of them do not celebrate anything for Holy Week.
I had a conversation with a young Tz’utujil man. He still speaks Tz’utujil but he does not wear the traditional clothes or participate in any of the ceremonies. He is aware of them. But they do not interest him. He proposed that the reason that his generation is changing so quickly is that it is hard for him to believe that this lake and this town are the umbilical cord of the universe when he can go online and see images of space. He can see new fashion that does not involve his wife weaving his clothes. He can read stories, watch movies, and hear music – but only in Spanish. For him the connection he has is more with the internet world and the images he receives from that. He does not feel at all connected to a hole in the middle of the Catholic Church.
I attend all of these events to learn, absorb, and witness. It is beautiful. It is not something on the internet – until I just put it there.
The contents of this website are mine personally and do not refelct any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.