Every year during Holy Week or Semana Santa the old colonial city of Antigua Guatemala invites over two million people to its century-old stone walls. The holy processions, carpet offerings made of fruit, sand and flowers, known as alfombras, along with other ceremonies take place five weeks before Easter, building up the tension to the fifth week, commemorating Holy Tuesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Saturday of glory and Resurrection Sunday. The whole town turns purple, churches and homes opening their doors even wider than usual and processions accompanied by Roman soldiers, incense and music astounding street pedestrians around every corner.
Huge statues of Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary and other saints are carried by devoted believers, more than 7000 people only in Antigua Guatemala. Man in bright purple robes and women in black, covering their hair with dark black laces slowly parade in a choreographed manner, gently leaning left and right. The honour is not free of charge, but the real price is the physical effort of holding a weight of several cars under the burning sunshine of Central America. Carriers stoically tolerate hardship but save their religious feelings for after since body inconvenience still comes first before salvation. Their facial expressions vary from tired to drained. But the support of their loved ones isn’t far, encouraging from the sides of the street they eagerly wait for them to finish, to share some delicious food and sweet drinks. The holiday is their time to rejoin with the loved ones, families and friends sharing laughter and affections, enjoying the rare work-free days.
The story of Jesus Crist is a well-known one, the narrative of reawakening, given to those who believe and keep their faith regardless of present hassle and pain. I never understood why members of different religions fight considering the essence of all religious communities is so alike, postulating the ethereal dimension where good deeds along with mercy count more than animalistic fight for survival. There is no escape from the circle of life, calling it nature, samsara or purgatory, its central core being transformation, never-ending change of death and rebirth. I also never understood atheists claiming the devotional stories sounding untrue and forgetting the vital aspect of religions, where fables carry much more meaning than the apparent report of the events, underlining the collective consciousness and archetypes.
It is sad how the modern mind, in a rush for gathering material evidence, often forgets that human being is much more than a bag of flesh and bones, willing to admit this or not. It is surprising, how nations as in the developing country like Guatemala, cherish the spirit much more than the Westerners while daily fighting much bigger troubles and injustice. But they still dance, kiss and laugh, their faces lighting up every time they meet another pair of human eyes staring back at them. The rare stern looks only belong to white faces, so absorbed in their regular self-importance. Who is the champion now, in this victory of the great mind, running around in circles?
While different ceremonial events take place all five weeks of Lent, with Sunday masses and processions, the peak is reached on Good Friday and the day before. With several parades moving here and there across town it’s not uncommon to see the spectacle on your way to the market, which makes Antigua’s daily life much more wondrous than usual. The religious extravaganza dramatises the main points of Christ’s story of resurrection, each event memorialized differently.
On the Maundy Thursday, the day which depicts fatal decree, the statues are wrapped up in blood coloured red, carried by cucuruchos dressed in purple and white. The evening part of the celebrations begins, the crowd gathers in the Central Park of Antigua Guatemala, some of them holding candles while waiting peacefully for andas, massive floats, to arrive. The funeral march, played by the marching band halts and a female voice sings Ave Maria. Large assembly starts praying in a union, with quiet determination to burn away everything belonging to the prior year. It is a time of the homecoming, for many family and friends, crossing their lives once more in gratitude for each other.
The mood changes drastically on the afternoon of the Good Friday when Antigua Guatemala turns black, mourning the death of Christ. The usual Latin good spirit hands over space to a serious, but the intense atmosphere, andas become more prominent and elaborate, immersed in gleaming gold, there is no trace of purple anywhere, but in blooming threes, cucurucos’ gowns are of the colour of ebony. With the full moon lighting up the night, the scenery is glorious, streets filled with candles and veiled people making it seem like the moment from pre-industrialisation times. The feverish city doesn’t sleep that night, deep drumming keeping awake the most tired ones, looking for exhausted rest.
The Saturday of glory‘s morning brings the day of the mourning, with beautiful statues of Virgin de Soledad floating in the air. The music escalates to melodic songs of sadness, slowly creeping in through the clouded skies. The evening presents a quiet parade of seriousness, carrying the dark angels of death. At 22:00 the orchestra switches to the sound of victory, gleaming through despair, once more overcoming the evil and rising to life.
The resurrection Sunday‘s processions are small but lively, accompanied by joyful cries, applaud and loud shots fired from nearby churches. Majority of people is already leaving Antigua Guatemala, which slowly returns to its previous state, while the feeling of rebirth firmly remains. Colourful pieces on the cobbled streets, leftovers from trampled alfombras, mark the official beginning of spring.