Antigua’s Easter Celebration
I went to Antigua, Guatemala for a volunteer trip that took place just before Easter. After learning Antigua holds the largest Easter celebration in the world which commemorates the Passion, the Crucifix and the Resurrection of Jesus, I extended my trip five days in order to see the elaborate carpets and processions.
The festivities come from an Andalusian tradition brought over by the Spanish missionaries in the 16th Century. While processions take place every Sunday of lent, the majority of the activities take place from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday during Semana Santa (Holy Week).
The activities begin with carpet making. Any business or person may make a carpet also known as an alfrombra in front of their home or store located on the processional route. The carpets are made of sand, dyed sawdust, flowers, vegetables, bread and more. Most carpets are in a shape of a rectangle which include a variety of designs, though occasionally there are different shapes like flowers or butterflies.
The work on the carpet begins months in advance of Semana Santa as the locals collect sawdust from area lumber yards and dye the material in a variety of bright colors: orange, yellow, green, purple, red, blue and more. To make the carpets, first the locals stake the area. Next, they fill wood forms with sand for a base and smooth sawdust on top.
The Beginning of the Carpet Making
Designs and Stencils
To create the elaborate designs that reflect Mayan tradition, biblical symbolism, and scenes from nature, the artists spoon colored sawdust into hand-cut stencils. To reach all parts of the carpet without damaging it, they place ladders or wood planks across the forms on which to sit. In addition to the sawdust, the creators add flowers, pine needles, native plants, pictures, fruit, bread, vegetables, and figurines are also added. These beautiful pieces of art take hours to make.
In Progress and Finished Hours Later
I was amazed to see how much time and effort went into these masterpieces and saddened to see them destroyed in minutes by the procession which is directly followed by garbage men, a fork lift and a dump truck to clean up the remains. The carpet making is considered sacrificial and allows the locals to give a part of themselves in the memory of Christ’s death. If another procession follows a portion of the same route, the people will make a new carpet only for it to be trampled too!
I couldn’t get enough of the carpets. I wandered street after street admiring all the creative designs. While many are vibrant in color, others are natural. The carpets made of pine needles, native plants and flower, though not as eye catching, were actually more expensive to make due to utilizing living material.
My personal favorites, however, were the carpets made of vibrant colored sawdust and complemented with vibrant colored flowers and figurines. I hated to see them get ruined so quickly, but at least the locals snapped up the flowers before the remains got swept into the trash.
Occasionally, I ran across a few unique carpets as well. One that was very different included Play-do decorations!
While the carpets were the highlight for me, the processions were equally amazing. During Semana Santa, there is at least one procession a day and as many as four. They begin at all hours of the day and night, last different lengths of time, and celebrate the life and death of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Each procession, which includes images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary atop a float carried by devotees, begins from and ends at a church and follows a specific route (usually through the Santa Catalina Arch). The carriers or cucuruchas sign up with the church and get their height measurements months in advance to carry the float which can weigh several tons for one block.
A Thursday Night Procession
The most expensive and desirable block is the section leaving the church. This honor is given to the tallest carriers who can afford to pay the largest sum. Each block, the 50-100 cucuruchas change position to carry the float. The badge they wear indicates in which block they have the float carrying duty. The final block, going into the church, is also considered prestigious and is usually saved for family members who have traditionally held this position over the generations. While the people pay to carry the float, it is also considered their penance.
Saturday Afternoon Virgin Mary Procession Leaving the Cathedral
The money paid to carry the float is used to hire a band which plays music while following the procession. I was expecting the processions to be very big, but they consist of only some flag bearers, the carriers, a large float, maybe a small float, and the band. Technically, the cucuruchas are supposed to march for the entire procession, but some last for more than 12 hours and begin at 3am. I believe that at any given time, the procession generally includes the carriers those who are about to carry the float.
The processions on Monday through Thursday commemorate Jesus’ life on earth and the cucuruchas dress in warrior outfits or purple, hooded robes. On Good Friday, the processions pay homage to the death of Christ. The colorful purple robes change to black by Friday afternoon. The Saturday processions pay tribute to the Virgin Mary and these smaller floats are carried by women dressed in nice, black out fits. Finally, the celebration takes place on Sunday with fireworks and jubilant music as they celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
A Friday Afternoon Procession Pulling Floats Depicting the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ
A Saturday Afternoon Virgin Mary Procession with Women Carrying the Float
A Sunday Procession which is more Jubilant
La Merced Procession on the Morning of Good Friday
As incense filled the air, both locals and tourists line the streets to see the slow marches whose routes are indicated in a booklet that I’m told can be found at a tourist kiosk. I never saw a tourist kiosk that was open, but my guide for Guatemala City had a booklet, so I digitally recorded a few of the parade routes, most specifically the Good Friday procession that left from La Merced Church as that is considered the most important and the peak of the activities. This one was larger than the others and included both men and women cucuruchas with large floats, horses, and flag bearers carrying banners inscribed with the last words of Christ. The carpets for this procession were very elaborate as well.
Though very busy, I thought the city would be more congested. The streets are only clogged where the procession is taking place and by a few of the elaborate carpets. Everyone, however, is very respectful and it is easy to squeeze through or to stop and take a photo where desired. I really LOVED seeing the traditions. Religious or not, Antigua is worth a visit at Easter! ETB