Semana Santa: Easter Traditions in Latin America

Semana Santa Easter Festival at Oaxaca Cathedral

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Semana Santa, which culminates in Easter Sunday, is one of the most important times of the year throughout Latin America. Semana Santa celebrates the last days of Christ's life, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, as well as the end of Lent. The Holy Week is observed in many different countries with a range of celebrations, from the solemnly religious to the more commercial and secular.

When Is Easter in Latin America?

Worldwide, the date of Easter varies from year to year, but it's always on a Sunday and typically occurs sometime in March or April. The Holy Week officially begins one week before Easter on Palm Sunday and continues throughout the week with Holy Thursday and Good Friday until the big celebration on Easter Sunday officially marks the end of the 40-day period of Lent.

What Happens During Semana Santa?

Throughout Latin America, Semana Santa spurs masses, religious observations, prayer meetings, and thousands of devout Catholics paying homage everywhere you go. In many communities, passion plays are put on to reenact the crucifixion of Christ. Also during this week, many schools and offices are closed and you can expect resort areas, like Cancun or Cartagena, to be crowded as people take advantage of the time off during the holiday.

Interesting Traditions by Country

Latin America covers a wide area and even though many people in Central and South America share Christianity as a common religion, traditions can vary depending on what country you're in. Here are some of the Holy Week traditions you might witness throughout Latin America that are unique to their own countries or specific regions or towns:

  • Mexico: In Cholula, a small town outside of Puebla, the floor of the town square is decorated in sand and flower petals, a sight the whole town comes out to see during Semana Santa.
  • Peru: On Holy Thursday, history is incorporated into the celebrations in Cusco as there is a procession to remember an earthquake that occurred in 1650. It traditionally ends at the Cathedral, which was the one building that survived at the time.
  • Venezuela: Every year, things heat up in the capital city of Caracas as it's traditional to burn an effigy of a local figure. This is known as the "Burning of Judas," during which locals will parade the effigy through the streets before meeting together to burn it in a bonfire. In many other regions of Latin America, this is done on New Year's as a way to rid the new year of bad energy and move on.
  • Colombia: In the town of Popayan, Easter is a time to celebrate art as well as the religious holiday with its famously spectacular Holy Week celebrations. While there is an annual Easter parade, there are also many art exhibits and events celebrating Semana Santa.
  • Brazil: Easter traditions vary from region to region, but the historic town of Ouro Preto has a particularly unique tradition of carpeting the streets with elaborate designs made of colored sawdust. Meanwhile, in the town of Goiás, a torchlight procession is organized every year to represent the Roman soldiers coming to arrest Christ.
  • Ecuador: One of the most religious cities in Ecuador is Cuenca, and it's common for devoted Catholics to come to this particular city to celebrate and eat fanesa, an Easter stew made with 12 grains representing the 12 Apostles.

Updated by Ayngelina Brogan June 1, 2016.

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