Dressing-Up for Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala

Dressing-Up for Semana Santa: An Account of the Holy Week Celebration in Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala

A Lenten celebration spent in Guatemala is beyond doubt exhilarating. True to seasoned travelers’ tale, Holy Week or Semana Santa exceeds everyone’s wildest spiritual expectation.

The event kicks off on Palm Sunday with the blessing of the palms then starts a climactic crescendo leading to Good Friday crucifixion, retreating into a hiatus on Black Saturday – in theory, and finally bursting into a culminating finale on Easter Sunday.

Alfombra from Colored Sawdusts
Alfombra from Colored Sawdusts
The Guatemalan stunning flashes of tradition and pageantry can be observed in: (1) palm blessing and display; (2) window dressing on homes and churches; (3) spectacular street carpet decorating along the processional route; (4) and the passionate procession of grand ecclesiastical images.

I’ve had the opportunity to glean most of them in Antigua, the epicenter of celebration.

Window Dressing

While red and green are the official colors of Christmas, purple is the official color of Lent, leading to Easter. In the Catholic universe, it’s the symbolic appearance of grief. Homes find the front window as the natural venue to display the hue. Dressed in any fashion imaginable, windows and even doors and gates show the color purple in ribbons, banners, flags, draperies, and streamers. Swags and bouquets of flowers neutralize the somber mood of the color.

Churches make interesting venues for purple dressing. Façades were decorated with swaying banners and curling ribbons while gable tops flashed flapping flags. Interiors were festooned with decorative banners and buntings while some sacred images were wrapped mysteriously with purple cloth. In one church, all icons held fresh coconut palm leaves, joining in the human celebration too.

Floral offerings can be more intense during this season as idols received generous amounts of all assortments and arrangements from their fans. The corozo flower with its built in boat shaped pod serves as its vase and offered on any major figure’s feet.

After 3 p.m. on Good Friday, the time appointed by the Church as when Jesus died, peeling church bells simultaneously gave the go signal to replace purple to black on all fabric configurations. This kick started the mourning period that lasted until Black Saturday. All Saturday processions have everybody, participants and idols alike, changing costumes to black. Then on Easter Sunday, the official color changed to white, the color of resurrection.

From a Waving Wand to a Sacred Bouquet

Faithfuls brought bouquets to churches on Palm Sunday for blessing. Young, fresh, supple coconut leaves underwent cutting, nipping, and tucking techniques producing artsy arrangements tropically Catholic and pagan in a single statement; lost in translation across the seas from its ancient Mediterranean date palm origin waved by Jesus’ fanatical cheering squad to salute his grand Jerusalem entrance two millennia ago. After blessing, it’s displayed on the home’s front window.

There’s no excitement, fanfare, or urge to compete for the grandest, most artistic, and most outlandish palm bouquet in any village or every parish. This palm festivity is kept in a low profile as participants are reserving their energies for the main event. Creativity goes far only to a certain extent and it’s rare to find a homemade one.

Scrumptiously Spruced-Up Streets

Complementing the palms are carpets called alfombras forming patterns from colored sawdusts laid-out on the street pavement like flower garden beds lining the processional route for image bearers to trudge on. This tradition tied-in with Jesus’ same welcoming committee who spread-out improvised sheets of cloth across his path. As expected, as it has easily been assimilating pagan rites and customs everywhere and ever since, the Catholic Church welcomed the Mayan contribution for its penchant for the geometric and the colorful. Eureka! They hit the right note and a successful dynamic tradition was born.

This tradition of laying carpets has now been extended to all processions lasting up to Easter Sunday and when it’s most intense and done in grand productions on Holy Thursdays and Good Fridays.

Functionally, carpets make wonderfully soft landing pads for image-bearers’ feet, and even for bystander-spectators to loll on after it has been walked over. In areas where images are paraded through, some in treacherous cobblestone streets for twelve straight hours, barring any delays and overtime which oftentimes occur, these carpets offer a practical relief cushioned pad for the tired feet, even if they’re not continuously laid out.

Any Guatemalan village and town church with a rich collection of images to form a critical mass of processional entourage might observe this practice of dressing up the pavement but none matches the superior artistic sophistication in Antigua.

In Antigua, this craft evolved into a distinct and developed art form drawing rave admiration even as it takes a few critical hours of assembly. In some cases, other materials were hauled-in such as pine needles, flower petals, leaves, corn-on-the-cobs, and fruits, taking the art form into a new level. The next generation might be scientifically formulated with acupressure and aromatherapy mint-flavored ingredients elevating the craft into higher heights of sophistication.

The decorating process has also become a community endeavor. Starting with an involvement of a household along the route, which is by default allotted a space immediately in front of it, nowadays, as mats of alfombras stretch for blocks on end, the longest could be almost half a kilometer, it’s taken over even by a class of artists. They prepare the design in drawing boards and handing out segmented stenciled designs to teams to produce a seamless masterpiece.

Spectacular Trail of Sorrow and Exultation

Antigua’s nearly 24/7 grueling marathon processions are an overkill in piety and pageantry that rival Seville’s of Spain. Close scrutiny of participants revealed ostentatious display that would drive heavenly angels crazy from outrageous consummation of one of the seven deadly sins. That’s Vanity with a capital V displayed through grief and guilt manifested in production numbers casting hundreds of living extras propping-up lifeless stars of the show – icons embellished with finest jewelry yet emoting pain and sorrow.

Nowadays, participants call in out of social prestige while spectators, in quite a majority of which are tourists without whom this event wouldn’t be produced and directed in Cecil B. DeMille fashion, watch to be enthralled and entertained by the spectacle, rather than to atone for their sins.

Scholars are convinced that this recollection of suffering and blood letting in the life of a religious figure has clicked and grooved in this alien culture because of its similarity to the Mayan blood offering ritual. Substitution of Pre-Columbian Maya rituals of sacrificing humans to appease a homo-carnivorous almighty was therefore an effortless bait and switch operation for the missionaries. Incidentally, the earlier natives found subtle release for their cultural identity suppressed by the Spanish conquistadores in this annual event marked by a sadistic subliminal message.

The Catholic Church hierarchy then might have been pleased seeing the extreme religiosity of its flock, but the flock saw it in another way, and never mind, as long as the success in numbers was assured. That’s what all counts.

Records show the Pre-Columbian Mayas who were introduced by the Aztecs of Mexico to the savage execution of victims and extracting their organs and blood as offerings without the perks of anesthesia nor dignity, were bloodthirsty practitioners of torture, inflicting it not only on their war spoils but obligating it on their kings & royalties in their ceremonial self blood-letting. Blood alone can appease the almighty.

On the big picture, the very graphic manner Roman Catholics celebrate this event numbs a sizeable percentage of humanity for centuries to exposure to ‘gore and violence’ – the universally appealing denominator, like today’s TV and movies’ content, take it from super millionaire-producer Mel Gibson. Lifting the pages of Guatemala’s history or any conservatively and religiously Hispanized country across the world, one wonders if there’s a correlation between its turbulent politics and violence. It’s very much unlike the brand of blood-and-pain-averse Nordic Protestant culture embraced by peaceful countries of Scandinavia.

Long Anda Carried by Costumed Menfolk
Long Anda Carried by Costumed Menfolk
The trail of spectacle describes in seven days the many poses of Jesus such as miserably sulking and bloodied, traipsing to his crucifixion spot with the cross, lying lifeless, or exalted and resurrected depending on the day of the week.

Antigua’s La Merced, San Felipe, San Jose Cathedral, and the road along San Francisco and Escuela de Cristo churches are the staging points of the processions, the largest on Holy Thursday, and Good Friday some starting as early as two or five in the morning.

The unique attractions of this Lenten pageantry are not the life-size images, nor the live actors, but those humongously long carved wooden flatbed image-carrying floats called andas.

Beautifully carved out of the finest hardwood, an anda is fitted with a pair of old-fashioned soccer pinball machine handles in front and rear held for propulsion and maneuvering. Cushioned notches distributed equally at the bottom of the sides are snugly cut out for the shoulders of eighty menfolk of uniform height. On the average, it weighed easily more than five tons, not crunching in the load of life-sized figures and other props.

In slow heaving motion, carriers called cucuruchos and their back up alternates, labor through as penance or desperation for a last-ditched effort requesting a worldly favor. Andas in motion are a remarkable sight like surfboards on invisible placid waves and the carriers’ collective stamina, or depletion of it, shows especially when it haphazardly undulates like rafts careening through a rough river.

Other modes of icon transportation are small carriages with wheels also carrying either a single image, or a tableau or menagerie of images pulled in front and pushed along the sides and rear.

A smaller version featuring female biblical figures are carried by womenfolk on a different train; float carrying having been a sex-segregated event and the female half of the residents do token or sideline roles. While the best and most roles are assigned to men and boys, aside from having the honor of first crashing the grandest carpets, which are reserved for Jesus’ images, customarily carried only by men.

Under strict rules, male-participants wore uniform costumes resembling a dressed to the hilt Lawrence of Arabia complete with a pair of gloves. And some with a staff topped with an oxymoron contraption between a saint’s crucifix and medieval warrior’s ax.

Some were attired as a Ku Klux Klansman, a priest, a bishop, or even an archbishop. The rest are in altar boy outfits in its myriad variations depending on task and seniority – in purple and white during the week and black on Saturday.

Dress code in this elite boys’ club is extremely adhered to, costumes come with ID pinned on the chest.

Cast as non-major participants, women conversely dressed freely. Wilted hags whom men wouldn’t badge a second look committing mental adultery on the holiest moment of the year seemed to dress prudishly while glamorous babes were not banned from wearing mod get-ups – tight tops, plunging necklines, or slit skirts as long as the color code of black & white is not violated. Flirty veils lost its original objective of protecting modesty by those wearing mini skirts simultaneously.

Unlike the more practical and even sneaker-wearing menfolk, heeled womenfolk excruciatingly heave more in agony. Hips swayed intensely, protruding rumps and wavy exposed legs swung in tired choreographed cadence like oars of an ancient Roman battleship.

Days are needed to spruce up the floats, which accumulate and sap the entire town’s creative energy and artistic juices. And when they come out, the intricately carved hardwood beds are abundantly bedecked with flowers, foliage, and paper maché mock rocks all around.

It probably takes a small window of time for the alfombras to be completed. The ones done past midnight sprout overnight like fungi and usually the best, maybe because artists’ concentration are not overwhelmingly distracted by wide awake day viewers observing over their backs. More or less four hours into the appearance of floats, artists were unnoticeably and surreptitiously busy at work, staking and aligning the layouts and finally pouring in colored sawdusts in precise perfect place with the help of patterned stencils. The alfombras were quietly protected and sometimes sprinkled with water to maintain the dusts’ moistness and flowers’ freshness; and with an honor system of respect, no jerk has prematurely crossed the line and stepped on it. Artists were considerate enough to finish it earlier to provide ample time for camera bugs and spectators to view and record the art creations just a few hours before the entourage appears.

Smoke as visio-olfactory signal, incense-burning boys flooded the route with foggy fragrance. They the way, swung their burners and flooded the street with fog and fragrance much like when a WWF bout starts with a bang introducing the protagonist star wrestler into the ring. Ecclesiastical regalia-bearers trail blazed; floats followed closely tagged by night light generator-on-wheels. The brass band playing lugubrious music came next. Drummers thumped slow deafening beats that made my heart drop in free-falling speed. An intensely powerful goose-bumped feeling evoked a combined eerie melancholia of JFK’s and Breshnev’s internment with a cardiac arresting Spielberg-directed scene where Nazis-encircled townspeople are condemned by Hitler to the firing squad.

Marshals conducted the way, cable wire-guys shoved up sagging power lines with custom designed poles to clear the floats, and human cordons disciplined crowds – all wearing their division-of-labor uniforms.

A myriad of processions has bombarded my audio-visual senses.

The Easter Sunday festivity consisted of children in the lead in polychromatic ancient middle-eastern garb engaged in Dionysian revelry spring hopping and skip jacking while clapping their hands and cajoling the spectators. Others sprinkled flower petals from their baskets along the path in the traditional pagan Roman rite of spring. They were followed by the images with upward gazing eyes in an ecstatic aura and the merry music-playing band.

Womenfolk Float Bearers
Womenfolk Float Bearers
After the last participant in the entourage stepped out of the last carpet, the neon-vested cleaning crews immediately jumped in scooping up and hurling the crushed alfombras into a trailing dump truck cum gulping machine in lightning speed and efficient fashion. Car traffic resumes and the artwork is erased forever. Only its vivid memories are recorded in tourists’ photo souvenirs.

Certainly, it’s an excellent performance with first world-caliber down to the minutest detail organization. It will put the Olympic ceremonies organizing committee to shame.

Antigua’s spectacle grew to grandest proportions owing to its status as regional religious center before it was devastated by the earthquakes in 1773. Money poured in to the motherhouses of congregations. Gilded icon treasures needed for the procession were acquirable, and the event easily affordable. Prior to the catastrophe, the city was a constant host to visiting earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It made sense to appease the gods from “heavenly wrath”.