Semana Santa (Holy Week in English) is the week leading up to Easter. This is a very important religious holiday in Mexico. Religious celebrations are at the forefront, but, since Mexican schools have two weeks vacation period at this time (the week of Semana Santa, and the following week, which is referred to as Semana de Pascua, which means "Easter Week"), it's also a time when Mexican families head to the beaches and tourist attractions.
Dates of Semana Santa
Semana Santa runs from Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) to Easter Sunday (Domingo de Pascua), but since students (and some workers) enjoy a two-week break at this time, the full week preceding Easter as well as the following week comprise the Semana Santa holiday. The date of Easter changes from year to year. The date is calculated based on the cycle of the moon and the spring equinox, with Easter falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the equinox. To make it easier, here are the dates for Easter for the next few years:
- 2020 - April 5 to 12
- 2021 - March 29 to April 4
- 2022 - April 10 to 17
Travel During Holy Week
Since schools in Mexico have a two-week vacation period at this time, this is effectively spring break for Mexicans. This tends to be the hottest and driest time of year through most of the country, making the beach a magnet for those wanting to escape hot city streets. So if you're planning to travel to Mexico during this time, be prepared for crowds on beaches and at tourist attractions, and make hotel and travel reservations well in advance.
The religious observances of Semana Santa do not take a back seat to beach fun, however. Processions and passion plays take place all through the country, though different areas celebrate in different ways and certain communities have more effusive celebrations. Among those places where Holy Week is celebrated en grande are Taxco, Pátzcuaro, Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas.
Jesus' final days are evoked in the rituals that take place during the week.
Palm Sunday - Domingo de Ramos
On the Sunday prior to Easter, known as Palm Sunday, the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem is commemorated. According to the Bible Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people in the streets laid down palm branches in his path. In many towns and villages in Mexico on this day there are processions reenacting Jesus' triumphal entry, and woven palms are sold outside churches.
Maundy Thursday - Jueves Santo
The Thursday of Holy Week is known as Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday. This day commemorates the washing of the feet of the apostles, the Last Supper and Jesus' arrest in Gethsemane. Some Mexican traditions for Maundy Thursday include visiting seven churches to recall the vigil the apostles kept in the garden while Jesus prayed before his arrest, foot-washing ceremonies and of course Mass with Holy Communion.
Good Friday - Viernes Santo
Good Friday recalls the crucifixion of Christ. On this day there are solemn religious processions in which statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary are carried through town. Often the participants of these processions dress in costumes to evoke the time of Jesus. Passion plays, dramatic recreations of the crucifixion of Christ, are presented in many communities. The largest takes place in Iztapalapa, south of Mexico City, where over a million people gather every year for the Via Crucis.
Holy Saturday - Sabado de Gloria
In some places there is a custom of burning Judas in effigy because of his betrayal of Jesus, now this has become a festive occasion. Cardboard or paper mache figures are constructed, sometimes with firecrackers attached, and then burned. Often the Judas figures are made to look like Satan, but sometimes they are made to resemble political figures.
Easter Sunday - Domingo de Pascua
You won't come across any mention of the Easter Bunny or chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday in Mexico. This is generally a day when people go to Mass and celebrate quietly with their families, though in some places there are festivities with fireworks, and jubilant processions with music and dancing.
Best Places to Celebrate Easter in Mexico
Easter is celebrated throughout the country, but if you want to see some interesting and unique Mexican celebrations, here are some good destinations to visit to witness local traditions:
- Cholula, Puebla: In this small town outside of Puebla, the floor of the town square is decorated with elaborately designed tapestries made of sand and flower petals. A large procession with people carrying religious figures makes its way around the square, walking over the tapestry and destroying it as they go.
- Oaxaca, Oaxaca: on Good Friday, a silent procession winds its way through the city streets, many of the participants carry religious figures and some wear pointed hoods. These hoods may remind you of the Ku Klux Klan, but they actually predate the klan and have their origin in Spain. The hoods represent the wearer's repentance for their sins.
- San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato: On Good Friday, locals wrap strings of firecrackers around figures made of paper mache that are called Judases, but often represent political figures or other important and controversial personalities. The fire crackers are set off and crowds of people enjoy the spectacle of the burning paper mache figures.
- Mexico City: The town of Iztapalapa, just outside Mexico City, is the scene of one of the most elaborate and fervent Passion Plays. Participants take the dramatization very seriously and spend months preparing to take on the roles of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Roman soldiers and more, In the city proper, traffic is lessened and the vibe is more laid back during the two weeks of the Semana Santa break than any other time of year as many city dwellers abandon the city to travel, making this an ideal time to enjoy the city without the crowds..