Surviving Semana Santa

Last week – Semana Santa – was one of the most religious times of year in Colombia – a country that is 90% catholic. For someone who is not religious and not used to having a huge amount of family around all at once, it’s a bit overwhelming.

People from around Colombia and abroad return home to celebrate and connect with family in their home towns. Lots of relatives arrived. An extra table was dragged into a larger area. Kids flew around the house, babies cried, plenty of food was eaten and everyone enjoyed catching up with one another.

The celebration in Mogotes starts on Palm Sunday, one week before Easter. In the morning, the people of the town join together for a procession carrying huge palm branches. There are vans outside the church where free seedlings are handed out so everyone can plant a tree or two. All the families gather in the park near the church. In the house, a religious radio broadcast plays loudly throughout the day and each day after until Friday.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we escaped to Bucaramanga so I missed out on all the chaos.

Thursday (which for some reason or another is holy), the family decorated a huge, pretty fruit basket like everyone else in Mogotes and took it to the church to join a pile surrounded by flickering candles.

In the afternoon, another procession marches through town, men hoisting statues of religious figures on their shoulders, everyone chanting and singing, a priest following with a microphone and some sort of wisdom.

The strangest part of the week for me came that night. All the families gather in their homes around a table and they tune in to the radio station. For about half hour, there is a sermon. We have wine and slices of white bread which we hold onto. I mush the corners of mine until they are soft and squishy. Everyone breaks out in song. Then more listening. They everyone holds hands and starts to sway and chant along with the radio. At some point, we eat the bread and drink the wine. Later, we hold up candles like lighters at a concert. Then everyone is supposed to close their eyes and think of all the people they love. After that, everybody gets up and hugs everybody else at the table which takes a long time considering the amount of people and manoeuvring around all the obstacles in a tight space. Next, we eat grilled cheese and ham sandwiches and some sort of home made squishy chicken sausage. The radio plays religious songs the rest of the night – the same ones over and over. This is strange mainly because in everyday life, the family makes no big deal over religion.

Good Friday morning begins with yet another procession, only this one starts at 6am and continues until late morning. It’s a long walk to 14 stations that represent some point along the journey of Jesus. I didn’t join in on the fun because the bed seemed a better option at the time, free of public religious displays and an oasis of peace. On the procession, a gigantic wooden cross is carried by the people.

A seven-course meal is eaten for lunch.

That night, the men walk to the cemetery with candles and come home with wax dripping down the backs of their hands and onto their coats.

On Saturday, it calms down a bit with only a church service and the women’s turn to get covered in wax in the cemetery.

Every day, there is some kind of activity in the church, mass or meditation…

Sunday, the day we celebrate by having dinner with my family in New York, is a day for travel here. There’s no Easter baskets filled with chocolate and goodies, no colored eggs poking out of the grass and definitely no oversized fluffy bunnies.

While interesting and perhaps a good cultural experience that offered me some opportunities to practice my Spanish and a see a few things I’ve never seen before, I have to admit I’m glad to have things back to normal!


About Little Observationist

Appreciating life's little luxuries.
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4 Responses to Surviving Semana Santa

  1. Lisa Bolton de Pimentel says:

    I think you will find that this is common practice not only in Colombia but in all Catholic countries to celebrate Easter in this fashion. Certainly, France, Spain, Portugal and I imagine Italy, but I have never been there at this time of year, follow the same sort of rituals. Even in countries which aren’t Catholic followers of this religion still celebrate it in pretty much the same way. I went to Catholic school in England when I was little and it was very much the highlight of our calender, even more so than Christmas I would say as it is when Christ died for us. At school and in Church we have the same processions and offerings of gifts with prays and vigils.
    On Palm Sunday you can see people walking around with their palms leaving church.
    Growing up in France I went to mainstream school but EVERYONE’s family celebrated Easter in the same way even though, by law, it wasn’t allowed to be talked about at school. When I lived in Spain in was a little more full on as the country is more Catholic but it is still the same.
    Walking in the streets of London on Sunday there were people, mostly Polish, who were carrying little baskets full of offerings flowing though the church gates. And passing some of the Baptist and Evangelist Churches you could see quite the same pattern and people singing the death and resurrection of Christ.
    I think your shock maybe wasn’t so much a US vs Colombian one rather than someone having little knowledge or experience in religious festivities being plunged in to a VERY Catholic festival. I would definitely be the same if I were to experience a Muslim festival like the one at the end of Ramadan.

    Unfortunately, people today have no idea or have forgot exactly why we have holidays at this time of the year, they seem to think it is because some bunny comes and hides chocolate eggs in our garden!!!! Uhmm…. I think maybe we have the vivid atheist imaginations of Hollywood to thank for that!

  2. Tim Lowe says:

    My first Easter in Colombia as well and we really did it up right. Popayán seems to be the epicenter of Easter as they hold their feria during Holy Week and have long and ornate processions through the streets every night.

    As a protestant, I find the whole thing a bit bemusing. I didn’t see a single Easter Bunny. 😉

    Photos from the festivities (and a side trip to the volcano) aqui:

    After The Rains | Popayán
  3. Molly says:

    I tried to escape the madness that descended upon Cartagena during semana santa and went to the desert, only to find that crowded as well!

  4. Agne says:

    Interesting, Steph! Glad you survived it and life’s back to normal 🙂 We celebrate Easter back home in much the same way, not our family though, I can’t remember ever going to church on Easter Sunday. What I’ve known most of my life is decorating eggs in all different patterns and colors with my Grandma and Mom for Easter and kinda knowing the idea behind this celebration, I always thought that people over-exaggerate their religious feelings and seriously go over the top to the point where it doesn’t seem at all genuine. It’s interesting to observe it though from the outside, like it would be with any other religious or cultural traditions, I’m sure 🙂 lots of hugs!! miss you here ❤ xxxxxx

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