Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 04/16/2012

The Spectacular Pageantry of Semana Santa!

15 abril 2012 domingo 

Christ carrying the cross

The season of PURPLE!!…flowering trees, banners, and robes of the pious descended upon Antigua for their sacred Easter week or Semana Santa. This is Antigua’s finest moment. Por suerte, my friend, Frank, from Vancouver BC, arrived at the beginning of the week to share this feast of splendid pageantry with me.

The main features of Semana Santa are the alfombras (literal translation- carpets) or decorations of flowers and colored sawdust laid out in intricate patterns on the streets, followed by the religious processions….families often work through the night or arise very early in the morning to ensure that their alfombra is ready for that day’s religious procession.  Given that the canvas is usually a rough cobblestone street, a layer of plain sawdust is laid down as a base, and painstakingly leveled. This year I understood that the procession would pass on top of the decorations, so photos must be taken beforehand (a lesson I learned the hard way last year).


Despite the many hours spent on these elaborate “paintings”, they serve as a metaphor to highlight the ephemeral nature of life. Quickly they are rendered but a scattered collection of dust under the feet of the pious passing over them. Antonio, the owner of our hostal in Antigua told us, “Alfombras hechas de verduras y frutas están prohibidas” (Alfombras made with vegetables and fruits are not allowed). Puzzled, I asked him why…the answer made sense. The pious can’t really see their feet as they struggle under the weight of the float and risk falling on such large objects underfoot. The proverbial banana peel!  Even still, we did witness a renegade veggie display, so hopefully no missteps occurred.

Xela procession- the Resurrection

Every day’s procession included a float featuring a scene from the last week of Jesus’ life, with somber music and faces bearing these  enormous and heavy floats…each about 25ft long and carried on the shoulders of 40 men or women. After several blocks of struggling under the weight of the float, new recruits step in to alleviate the burden, and continue this way throughout the hours of the procession. In Antigua, the procession would begin mid-morning from a church and return in the evening after a serpentine path through the cobblestone streets. A glance down a street would reveal if alfombras were underway, “okay, they haven’t passed by here yet” …despite the crowd and music, it was surprisingly easy to lose track of where was the procession in Antigua.  Amazingly, as I looked around I noticed that foreign visitors were a tiny subset of the tourists.  It was quite refreshing to see so many Guatemalan visitors in their country’s former capital to celebrate this special week. I received some amused smiles as I traipsed about in my Mayan traje….my townspeople are now used to me in their clothing, however, a canche (blond) tourist in Mayan traje in Antigua was an unusual sight. One elderly woman tugged at my sleeve and gave a huge smile, a vote of approval!

Enjoying a sunny day at Lake Atitlan

Wishing to spread our wings to other sights, we spent several days in various towns along the shore of Lake Atitlan, a crater lake with its own mystical beauty. Panajachel (or Touristlandia), Santa Cruz la Laguna, and lastly Santiago Atitlán which is dominated by Volcan Pedro.  Although this is still verano (summer) or dry season, Mother Nature decided to unleash her water bounty from the skies each afternoon. Sheltered, we admired the dark clouds rolling across the sky spiked by great flashes of light.

Santiago mass

Santiago rivaled Antigua in pageantry as we overlooked a large plaza which was transformed into an outdoor mass. First,wooden pews were carried to their place from the adjacent church, and then the village people arrived de todos lados…on foot and by the 3-wheeled Tuk Tuks.

Men were festive in their long shorts of different colors and embroidery; this is one of few places in Guatemala where men still wear traditional clothes.

Santiago men in traditional clothes

The women were dressed in either blue or purple…with their huipiles (Mayan blouses) covered with embroidered flowers and birds. I watched one mother of twin girls entertain her lively children, and finally sitting down to nurse them simultaneously… no small feat in itself! In a manner of a few hours, the empty plaza was transformed into a sea of color with more than 1,000 faithful celebrating the death and rebirth of Christ. The mass was conducted in both Spanish and the Mayan language, Tz’utujil. Yet, only the Spanish was understandable to me.

Disciples of Christ

An amusing note…prior to the mass, a group of young boys re-enacted the Last Supper.  I give credit to the creative mind who chose their hat design of cylindrical hats adorned with brightly colored plastic puff balls. Somehow I doubt that these were the headgear of the original disciples however, it brought even more color to the festivities. Later, this same group of youth ascended to the stage for a re-enactment of Christ washing the feet of his disciples.

Outdoor mass in the shadow of San Pedro

What splendor!! Such a spiritual sight to look out over the entire village of Santiago brought together by their faith…with the volcano San Pedro as their dramatic backdrop and testament to earth’s beauty. And slowly, the sun set with a brilliant orange sky.

Back to Antigua on Good Friday, we arrived for a rainy evening to witness soggy alfombras and a very wet procession. Frank sadly left behind the colors of Guatemala at the end of a busy week, and I headed to one last celebration in Xela. Easter Sunday. The Resurrection.

Xela women...strong and beautiful!

Little girls were decked out in their white Easter dresses, while women adorned in Mayan traje carried a large float with the Virgin Mary. I am truly blessed to bear witness to this spiritual celebration in my adopted country…perhaps someday others of you will travel here for Semana Santa.

Tomorrow, April 16th  is my sacred day…mi cumpleaños or birthday.

I give thanks for another year of wonder and friends and family!! Yes, I am indeed blessed. So wherever you lay your head this night, in the USA or another country, I thank you for your kind interest in following my life here in Guatemala. Que le vaya bien! Abrazos de Guatemala!!


  1. Happy Birthday Teri! And thank you for the quick taste of Guatemala! It was certainly fantastic to see the colourful alfombras, large processions, and that mass in Santiago. But it was also a joy to see the things that most tourists don’t – the women washing clothing at the lake shore, the friendly people of San Bartolo, the community bath/hot springs, and the importance of Easter to the typical Guatemalan. And, as you mentioned, the smile of a Mayan woman, proud of her culture. So much more than you get from the tour groups or resorts!

  2. Happy Birthday Janet! Thank you for sharing your wonderful adventures and pictures. Best wishes, Donna

  3. Happy Birthday Janet!
    Thanks for sharing the great pictures and traditions of Guatemala. Hope you enjoyed your birthday. Best wishes for the year to come.

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