In the United States, Easter has evolved into a large-scale commercial celebration consisting of Easter eggs and magical bunnies, but for Catholic Latinx households, the Easter holiday is still deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition. It’s a time to gather with family, a time to be thankful and is a testament to how integral Catholicism is to Latin American cultures overall.
Here’s a look at how it’s celebrated throughout Latin America, what it consists of, and a breakdown of its history.
What Is the History of Semana Santa?
Semana Santa’s origins date back to 16th-century Spain when the Marqués de Tarifa returned to Andalucia from the Holy Land. Inspired by his trip, he established the Via Crucis in churches across Spain. The Via Crucis (or Way of the Cross) is a series of images depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion.
From then on, Semana Santa was observed with processions and rituals to reconstruct the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.
What Happens During the Week of Semana Santa?
(Domingo de Ramos)
This day falls on the Sunday before Easter. The day commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This was the beginning of the end for Jesus.
Holy Tuesday (Martes Santo)
These two days during Semana Santa are pretty dead in the big cities in Colombia like Bogotá and Medellín. Many small stores and some restaurants are closed. Normally these are good days to go to the movies. Or these are good days to head out of town to a nearby pueblo. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, people will be staying at home.
Holy Wednesday (Miercoles Santo)
Holy Wednesday marks the end of Lent and the beginning of Easter.
In addition, this day is like a mini-Friday, as Thursday and Friday are official holidays. So, Wednesday is normally more of party night during Semana Santa with many bars and clubs open. But the bars and clubs in Colombia are currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and everyone is supposed to be at home during the quarantine.
Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo)
Maundy Thursday is a religious Holy day that is observed all over the world. It was established to commemorate the foot washing (Maundy) and the last supper of Jesus Christ with his Apostles. In addition, this holiday occurs the day before Good Friday.
Good Friday (Viernes Santo)
Good Friday, also known at Holy Friday, Great Friday and Black Friday, is a religious holiday that commemorates the crucifixion – and eventual death – of Jesus Christ.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, this day is typically treated as a fast day – a day in which one only has one full meal and abstains from the consumption of meat.
Holy Saturday (Sabado Santo)
Holy Saturday remains for Catholics more like a day of waiting, waiting for the great celebration that will take place the following day on Easter.
In Medellín, normally the city is pretty dead. Also, I have experienced Bogotá to be pretty dead on this day. But in 2020, cities will be even more dead than normal due to the quarantine.
Easter Sunday or Resurrection Sunday (Domingo de Resurrección)
While not typically included as part of Semana Santa this is an important day. This day is a festival celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
What Do People Eat During Semana Santa?
During these days, it is not acceptable to eat lamb, chicken, beef, pork, ham, deer and most other meats. However, eggs, milk, fish, grains, and fruits and vegetables are all allowed.
How Is Semana Santa Celebrated in Latin America?
The largest Semana Santa celebrations in Latin America occur in Mexico, Central America, and the Andes mountains in South America. It is traditionally a time of vacation as most schools and businesses close for the week. Different rituals are carried out each day of the week, depending on the country. The first day of Semana Santa, called Palm Sunday, is typically celebrated by a religious leader blessing palm fronds like many people do in the United States. On the Friday of Semana Santa, called Good Friday, many communities put on an event that lasts all day long where hundreds of people gather to enact historic Christian events. Easter Sunday is one of the most important days in Latin America as most people attend religious services and street festivals.
One of the defining features of Semana Santa in Latin America are the religious processions through city streets. People dress up in purple and white robes with hoods, a tradition dating back to the 1200s in Europe, to carry large religious statues of saints on floats through the streets. Because the floats can be large and heavy, there can be up to 50 people carrying a statue at once. It is considered an honor to be chosen to help carry a float. The processions can take multiple hours and are traditionally accompanied by a marching band.
Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and Honduras, have a special tradition for the processions. People stay up all night before the procession to make elaborate images out of colored sawdust, leaves, and flowers. These images are called rugs (alfombras in Spanish) because they are constructed on the ground in the streets, and the processions walks straight through them. The alfombras are intricate, delicate, and beautiful. They only last one day because once the processions walk through them, they are not rebuilt until the next year.