Holy Moly: Semana Santa in Antigua (Part I)

Before I dive into Antigua’s impressive and definitely blog-worthy Holy Week festivities, let me apologize for having not posted anything in two full months.  It’s not that the past eight weeks haven’t provided worthwhile material, but rather that there’s been too much going on and the potential blog posts and photos just keep piling up!  Antigua celebrated a small festival with free concerts and museum exhibits, I visited the beautiful restored colonial home of the Popenoe family, “The Fam” came down (which involved jungle tours of Tikal and Yaxha, bumpy boat rides across Lake Atitlan, zip-lining through coffee fincas, and LOTS of haggling for textiles, pottery, and any other souvenir you can think of), I visited the Kaqchikel Maya community of San Juan Comalapa (known as the “Florence of America” for its indigenous mural painting traditions) and participated in a ceremony with a Maya priest, and developed something of a boot problem thanks to the nearby leather artisan town of Pastores, not to mention the many guests and lecturers who have been swinging through the Casa Herrera as part of the Study Abroad program here.

Here’s a quick sample of some of those adventures, though each could have probably filled its own full post:

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Free concerts in the Parque Central in Antigua

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Tour of the Casa Popenoe, the restored colonial childhood home of Dr. Marion Popenoe de Hatch (a local archaeologist), whose father purchased and refurbished it while working for the United Fruit Company

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Two-thirds of the Newman Sisters and Temple IV at Tikal

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Lake Atitlan, looking decidedly less choppy than when we had to cross it the next afternoon

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The fearless zip-lining ladies getting geared up and ready to go

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Our driver for most of the family vacation, Don Lalo, also happened to own a workshop where a few older men weave tablecloths, dishtowels, aprons, and other fabrics on traditional wooden looms

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A visit to the textile museum in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, one of the towns near Antigua famous for their weaving traditions

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The candle-making factory at the Hotel Santo Domingo, a ruined convent revamped into a 5-star hotel in Antigua

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The number of souvenirs visible in this photo is probably close to what went back to the U.S. in the Nash/Newman suitcases

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The Kaqchikel murals of San Juan Comalapa, the “Florence of the Americas”

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Our contemporary Maya priest and the nearly complete preparations for the ceremony in San Juan Comalapa

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Weaving lessons from the pros of San Antonio Aguas Calientes at the Casa Herrera

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My custom-made boots from Pastores: traditional huipiles (women’s woven clothing) from San Pedro Sacatepéquez and red leather

And now on to the main event: Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Antigua.  Whether or not you’re one of the faithful, Holy Week here is nothing short of a spectacle (and one that can’t be ignored even if you wanted to – Antigua’s celebrations are said to be the largest ones in the Western Hemisphere).  All year, every year, cofradías (Catholic brotherhoods) from each of the churches in and around Antigua (of which there are many) prep and plan for the celebrations and processions to commemorate the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus.  Alongside the religious activities, Antigua comes alive with flowers and banners decorating the town, enticing street markets selling local foods and seasonal sweets, and a massive influx of thousands of both national and international tourists.  Although there are several different kinds of Holy Week events, including special masses, evening prayer vigils, candle services, and Eucharistic worship, the processions are the heart and soul of Semana Santa in Antigua.

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The street market in front of La Merced selling everything from mangos to meat to mariachi guitars

Holy Week officially began this past Sunday with Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos), but the processions have actually been taking place all throughout Lent (this is mainly for logistical reasons – if all the churches around Antigua tried to process during Holy Week, there would definitely be some collisions!).  During the processions, each church parades floats bearing effigies of religious figures (known as andas) along different routes through Antigua’s streets and back to the church.  All the processions include one anda for Jesus Nazareño (the cross-laden Jesus) and one for La Virgen de Dolores (a grieving Mary), but some also include smaller statues of Mary Magdalene and Saint John.  Men in purple robes (though they’ll be in black on Good Friday) carry the anda bearing Jesus, while women in white or black dresses follow behind carrying the anda with Mary.  Although serving as a cucurucho (the term for the men carrying Jesus) or cargadora (the term for the women carrying Mary) used to be a form of Lenten penance, performed with the face covered, it has been transformed into a special honor within church communities and men and women often pay significant amounts of money to carry the anda as it passes particularly popular viewing areas, such as the Parque Central or the Cathedral.

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Palm fronds made and sold in front of Antigua’s churches for Domingo de Ramos

Some of the most elaborate andas can weigh up to 8,000 pounds and require nearly 100 men to carry.  Due to the immense weight of the anda, each cuchurucho usually only carries for a block before switching out with another waiting bearer, though some people pay for multiple turns throughout the processions.  Many of the processions begin early in the morning, continue through the night, and return to their churches the next day, covering several miles.  There are also children’s processions, which include both older children who carry smaller versions of the church’s main andas and younger kids who simply walk along with the procession with their parents.

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Cucuruchos big, small, and teeny tiny

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Late night procession from La Merced – the anda and clouds of incense smoke are lit up thanks to the cucurucho with the job of wheeling a generator behind the procession 

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Children’s processions from La Merced (and their grown-up helpers)

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A cucurucho and cargadora that I don’t think will be all that helpful in carrying the andas…

The andas are the focal point of the processions, but they are actually in the middle of a much larger parade of people.  Ahead of the andas, a man carries an elaborate banner with the name of the church, another raises a sign to let the cucuruchos know when to change carrying turns during the procession, a few cucuruchos swing incense burneds loaded with copal, and family members follow the route alongside parents, siblings, or children as they shift in and out beneath the andas.  After Jesus and Mary pass, a band follows closely behind, playing a funeral march during each turn.  Behind the band, street vendors follow on the heels of the procession, hawking balloons, candy, hats, sunglasses, and even robes and gloves should a cucurucho come unprepared.  Finally, the clean-up crew takes up the rear of the procession, scooping up the sawdust, flowers, and pine needles of the elaborate alfombras (carpets) that local families create in the streets ahead of the processions.  All around, spectators and waiting cucuruchos fill the streets wherever the procession passes by.

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Post-procession party favors

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The clean-up crew waiting for the andas to make one of their tight turns through the Antigua streets before they sweep up the sawdust, flowers, and pine needles of the alfombras

Antigua’s alfombras definitely merit their own blog post, so they’ll be “Part II” of my Semana Santa blogging (plus, I want to wait until tomorrow so I can include some photos of the one we’re making for the procession passing by the Casa Herrera!).  So stay turned – there’s more to come with alfombras tomorrow and Good Friday’s biblical reenactments, which are surely not to be missed – they’re raising Lazarus from the dead, Roman soldiers on horses will be looking for Jesus throughout Antigua, and Judas will be hung outside the main church…

5 thoughts on “Holy Moly: Semana Santa in Antigua (Part I)

  1. OH my goodness, how absolutely fabulous you make everything sound, I want to live there after reading this blog!!! xoxoxo

  2. Sarah:
    Serious “all-world” blog post. Love the visuals but, of course, very concerned about the possible boot issues.

    Bink

    • What an amazing account of the Catholicism in action down there. It sounds like a very festive and community involved process. Very enlightening given the new Pope selection. Thanks for sharing your stories. 🙂

  3. Holy-moly is right! This is about as comprehensive an explanation of Semana Santa as one could hope for. Throw in the excellent photos and we have a veritable “eBook” on the subject.
    I read this post with both relief and pleasure.
    Relief because I was beginning to worry that the long pause in posts here might have meant that you had encountered misfortune in your adventure and the new post has put that worry to rest.
    Pleasure because good writing is always a pleasure to read and your writing prowess shines in this post.
    Thanks for such a fun tour of Semana Santa in Antigua!
    Now I must read through it again 🙂
    Cheers,
    Chuck

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