Holy Week, as it is known NOB, is a whole different enchilada here en Mexico (pun intended). First off, the holiday comprises two weeks, Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Semana Pascua (Easter Week). Second, it is the official vacation season in Mexico: schools close, the government shuts down, and Mexicans head to the coast or their favorite colonial cities in the mountains for a break.
To put it in an American perspective, Semana Santa is like Easter, Labor Day, and Spring Break combined. The emphasis on Holy Week may not surprise you, given that Mexico is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. But it is not only that; it is also the fact that Mexico is a Catholic country with a connection to a Latin (i.e., Spanish) heritage that helps to explain the importance of this week.
Semana Santa officially begins on Domingo de Ramos (literally, Sunday of Branches, aka Palm Sunday). Here in Ajijic, there is a festival in the town square starting at 4:00 pm and running into the evening. Volunteers provide all the goods for sale, do the cooking and cleaning, even provide the bands for entertainment. We enjoyed the bands and the tostadas, pozole, and tamales, all home-made. All the proceeds go to cover the expenses of the annual passion play, which are considerable. The highpoint of this day’s activity is a procession which starts at the end of town and proceeds past the square to the Church for a 7:00pm mass. Townfolk line the procession route and cover the cobblestones with alfalfa; actors playing the parts of Jesus and the 12 apostles lead the procession through town and into Mass.
The next few days are quiet, leading up to Maundy Thursday, or Jueves Santo. After a re-enactment of the Last Supper, the crowds move up a steep hill overlooking the town for scenes from the garden of Gethsemane. This location will also serve as Golgotha on Good Friday (Viernes Santo). The night ends with Jesus’ arrest and a torchlit procession to take him back to the church square for his trial the next day.
The theatrical quality peaks on Good Friday morning. Crews erect an impressive stage and backdrop, which is modified ingeniously between sets to portray the outside of Pilate’s Palace, Herod’s palace, and back to Pilate’s palace. A crowd of locals fill all the Passion play roles, from Roman guards to the Apostles, the Sanhedrin, and even human statues. The dialogue, costumes, and sets represent a significant commitment in terms of time and money, all done by volunteers.
Quality sound and light-systems and special effects complete the scene. The most surprising thing about all of this is it is staged by a small Mexican village, and it is only one of many Passion plays staged in our area (Lakeside)
Locals consider it a high honor to be chosen to participate. The day concludes with a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), as Jesus carries his cross back up that steep hill for the crucifixion.
Sábado Santo (Holy Saturday) is the grand finale; the day is mostly quiet until the vigil mass of the Resurrection (with a re-enactment, naturally) in the early evening and a large festival afterwards. The festival includes la quema de Judas, where Judas effigies (including fireworks) are set alight. Sometimes unpopular political figures are also burned/exploded, all in good fun.
Like many holidays in Mexico, Easter Sunday is quiet time to spend with the family, or to recover from the vigil parties. If you are ever in Mexico during Holy Week, do brave the sun and the crowds and enjoy a Passion play experience for yourself.
Hope you enjoyed this overview of Semana Santa, and Happy Easter all!