Holy Week in Antigua is world famous. Travel literature, feature articles, documentaries, encyclopedias all feature the processions and the colorful carpets covering the streets for the processions to walk over. The crowds are also world famous – everything is crowded and twice as expensive. Maybe more so, considering the confluence of every pickpocket in Central America. We’ve experienced Holy Week in several places in Mexico – not quite as decorative, and not quite as crowded, but still very hectic. So we timed our visit to end just before Holy Week in Antigua. We didn’t want to pay extra and drown in the crowds.
After arriving in Antigua, we learned that the activities of Holy Week are just the culmination of very similar activities that extend through the entire period of Lent. This year, Lent began on March 5. There are 5 weeks of vigils, processions, and carpet making leading up to the festivities of Holy Week, April 13-20. We were delighted to find that we can experience slightly less frantic versions of the Holy Week ceremonies, without the extreme hoopla. We attended a talk by Elizabeth Bell on March 5, and learned lots of good details about the process – including excellent tips for enjoying the events. We bought a copy of her book, “Lent and Holy Week in Antigua”.
The tradition goes back, of course, to Spain and to colonial times. Cofradias
were established by the Spanish clergy to enable parishioners to play important
roles in the ritual of the church. Later, these Cofradias were transformed
into today’s Hermandades (“Brotherhoods”). These hermandades
form a powerful social structure, bringing families together into a mutual
support system. Each hermandad has a specific church home, with a specific “saint” (statue
of Christ, typically) that it cares for. The major visible activities of the
hermandades at this time of year are processions and vigils. Most often, there
will be a vigil (velación) in the home church all day on an assigned
Friday during Cuaresma. Often, the hermandad will construct a carpet (alfombra)
inside the church in front of the statue of the santo. These carpets always
include fruits, vegetables, and flowers (a “huerta”, or garden).
Sometimes the decoration will extend to a much more elaborate tableau, built
in front of the main altar/retablo of the church. The entire transformation
of the church, dramatic as it is, is usually removed the following day. Vigils
may or may not be connected with a following procession. On Fridays there are
also short processions from the Cathedral (“Via Cruz”) just going
around the main square – with schoolgirls carrying a small Christ figure.
When there is a procession, it begins mid-day on Sunday. Starting well in advance, people who live along the route of the procession plan their carpets. They may feature flowers, fruits, and vegetables. They usually include huge decorative seed pods (corozos)
from a species of palm tree that grows on the coast. Most often, they are made mostly of colored sawdust. Family traditions are very strong: people get together to do their carpet, and make an all-day celebration of it. Hours before the procession is due, they will lay out the design carefully in the street, lay a base of plain sawdust to achieve a level surface, then create the design in colored sawdust on top, using stencils. Sometimes there are additional elements – pieces of statuary, cloth, lettering. The children often will make their own carpet, usually with pine needles as the base. Improvised improvements can go on right up to the time the procession arrives.
The procession includes a cast of many hundreds of people. There are
Roman soldiers, of varying degrees of authority. There are teams of carriers,
dressed in matching robes and hoods. There are bands, playing funeral
marches. There are incense bearers, generating huge amounts of smoke.
There are teams of women carriers for the smaller floats with statues
of the Virgen. The feature attraction is a huge float with the statue
of Christ on top. It may weigh up to 7000 pounds, and be carried by anywhere
from 40 to 100 men. The sides are elaborately carved. It is elaborately
decorated. The procession leaves the home church, proceeds through a
long, well-marked route that goes by the principal churches in Antigua,
goes around the main square, and then returns to the home church. The
procession typically lasts 8 or 10 hours. Of course the teams of men
carrying the huge float switch off frequently. Another team, with heavy
equipment, follows the end of the procession, cleaning up.
There are other places with strong Holy Week traditions. But, as the Antigueños are eager to tell you, there is no other place that does it like they do!
See individual galleries, linked from the Guatemala index page, for photos of Cuaresma activities in Antigua.