Easter in Latin America
Easter is a very important holiday in most of Latin America. Every country celebrates it in their own way, so let’s take a look at some of the local traditions and festivities in the different regions.
Easter and Semana Santa (‘Holy Week’) are some of the most important holidays in Costa Rica during the year. The passion processions re-enact Jesus’ journey to his crucifixion and take place in most towns, with the largest one being held in downtown San José. Traditions run deep in this part of the world, and the holiday is a time to spend with family and friends coming together celebrating, relaxing or to make and share traditional homemade food before the fasting starts on Good Friday.
One of the more interesting traditions during Semana Santa takes place in the Ortega de Santa Cruz village in Guanacaste, where brave men capture large crocodiles along the Palma River. This can take up to two hours, after which the catch is finally tied down and taken back to the village to be put on display. The reptiles are on show until Easter Sunday after which they’re released, unharmed.
One of the largest Easter celebrations in the world takes place in Antigua, Guatemala with a combination of commemorations of the Passion, the Crucifix and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thousands of visitors come to take part in the processions and other religious festivities in the city.
During the re-enactment of the Passion of Jesus Christ large wooden floats are carried through the streets for up to eight hours. Each float is lavishly decorated and can weigh up to several thousand pounds. They require between 50-100 carriers each, who are replaced every fifteen minutes or so. It’s considered a great honour to carry the religiously-themed floats, so there’s never a shortage of volunteers.
Extraordinary colourful carpets (alfombras) grace the streets. These are produced by residents and made of coloured sawdust, fruit, flowers, and pine needles for the processions to walk over. While everyone is extremely careful not to walk over the carpets before the processions take place, they get completely destroyed within minutes once the re-enactments are happening.
Locals in Nicaragua live for the Easter, or Semana Santa celebrations. Religious traditions are a blend of Spanish and indigenous rituals which generally start on Palm Sunday, one day before the ‘Holy Week.’ Several processions and festivities take place throughout the week which draw visitors to the towns and cities.
A process of great significance is the Donkey Procession, which is held on the morning of Palm Sunday. Either a person dressed as Jesus Christ or a statue is placed on a donkey and walked around town together with priests and parishioners. The procession is accompanied by philharmonic music. Crowds waving palm fronds to the man or statue on the donkey commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem welcoming him as the messianic king.
Stations of the Cross processions take place every Friday during Lent to commemorate the story of Jesus’ journey to his place of death. During these processions, priests and parishioners will walk the streets while singing canticles. They will make fourteen stops along the way at houses in the town or city where altars are set up.
A typical indigenous tradition is San Lázaro, which takes place at the Santa María Magdalena parish church in Monimbó, Masaya. On the second last Sunday before ‘Holy Week’ owners will bring their dressed up dogs to the parish church to show thankfulness or to ask for miracles to happen to their family, friends and even pets. The tradition refers to biblical passages in which dogs were said to lick the sores of Lazarus.
The most important day of the Holy Week festivities in Cusco, Peru is Holy Monday. On this day the Peruvians commemorate El Señor de los Temblores (‘The Lord of Earthquakes). It’s said that when a local brought out a figure of the saint from a local Cathedral during a powerful earthquake in 1650, the tremors stopped instantly. To celebrate this miracle the people of Cusco organise a procession that leaves at 2pm from the cathedral and returns to the main square at around 7pm.
In Arequipa Easter Sunday is unique compared to most Peruvian cities through the burning of a statue of Judas, as a symbolic act of justice and punishment. This event is followed by large firework displays lighting up the sky.
Another popular destination in Peru for the ‘Holy Week’ festivities is Ayacucho. Biblical re-enactments and processions are followed up by a large open air craft market held on Saturday, including local food and live music. The festivities and parties take place all throughout the day and night and mark the resurrection of Christ.
With the Brazilian Carnival preceding the Easter celebrations, the period leading up to Easter is a busy one. Decorations, food and religious processions are prepared all over the country. ‘Easter Week’ rituals start with the blessing of the palm trees, followed by procession walks whereby worshippers carry statues of Mary and Christ around the towns and cities. Pacoca is a special Easter treat that people make from mixed nuts which they hand out to visitors during these processions. Other typical Easter treats are chocolate eggs and Easter ring cake.
Similar to Antigua, handmade carpets are prepared for the processions, made of sawdust, flowers and even coffee. Carnival makes a brief reappearance on Easter Sunday when large gala carnivals commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ throughout the country.
The ultimate city to partake in the Easter festivities in Colombia is the white city of Popayán. The religious processions take place during ‘Holy Week’ and were declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, making it a popular Easter destination in Latin America. Besides the traditional processions there is also a dedicated children’s procession as well as a religious music festival. Visitors can follow a trail that includes eight of the city’s most famous churches, such as the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Assumption and the churches of San Francisco and San Augustin.
In the capital city of Bogotá, thousands of devotees climb the 3km up to the top of Monserrate on Easter Sunday. While most tourists and visitors make their way up using the train or gondola, worshippers make the journey on hands and knees as a sign of devotion, penance and gratitude. Once at the top, they visit the Sanctuary of our Fallen Lord and pray in front of the church’s image of a fallen Christ.
One of the largest Easter processions in South America is the Holy Friday’s Procession of the Penitents in Quito. Male penitents (cucuruchos) wear purple robes tied with a cord at the waist. They also wear a tall pointed hood, with only openings for the eyes, making them unrecognizable. During the procession they’re followed by religious images, as well as thousands of devotees carrying candles and saying prayers along the way. The event is held in honour of Jesus’ sacrifice and as a symbol of remorse for the mistakes of mankind. It’s a very impressive event, with penitents wearing heavy wooden crosses, crowns of thorns on their heads or chains on their feet during the five mile walk, to simulate the pain of Christ’s journey.
Food is an important aspect of the ‘Holy Week’ celebrations in Ecuador. A traditional dish during this week is Franesca, a traditional soup made of twelve different beans and/or grains, representing Jesus’ twelve disciples, salt cod, eggs, slices of banana, fried bread, cheese and peanuts. This is a favourite amongst the locals and also a great option for no-meat Friday.
While most passion plays in Latin America have their roots in the colonial period, in the Iztapalapa borough of Mexico City its origin is a cholera epidemic in 19th century. The epidemic killed 5% of the population in Mexico City. At the time, residents visited an image of Jesus Christ at the Santuario de Señor de la Cuevita and promised to hold an annual procession in His name to end the suffering. Afterwards, only eight more people died from the outbreak, which is why the procession is still being held to this day. It’s also one of the most popular in the country, and is commemorated by thousands of devotees.
For a truly cross-cultural Easter experience, the special traditions of the Tarahumaras indigenous group in Copper Canyon are not to be missed. Due to the influence of Jesuit monks in the 1600’s, Christian beliefs blended with local beliefs and traditions. ‘Holy Week’ in this area of Mexico is all about the battle between Good and Evil, featuring processions, temples decorated with pine branches, traditional costumes and dances accompanied by violin and guitar music.