Holy Week, or Semana Santa, is the busiest week of the year in Antigua, Guatemala. The colonial city comes alive with visitors from all over Guatemala, and there is a slight boost in foreigner visits as well. Why? It is because of a five hundred year old tradition that takes place starting Ash Wednesday and carries on each Sunday until Holy Week, at which point it occurs daily, around the clock. What tradition is this? It is the art of creating beautiful, natural carpets, or alfombras, in the streets on the processional routes. The procesiones themselves are grand affairs, with thousands of observers and hundreds of participants.
The alfombras were seen in Spain more than a thousand years ago, and their first recorded appearance in Guatemala dates to 1524. It is not a Mayan tradition, as some are led to believe, but carpet making was introduced here by the conquistadors. The alfombras can be any size, any shape, and made with a wide variety of materials, but most commonly, colored sawdust, flowers and pine needles. They are painstakingly created by hand using stencils and a lot of patience and planning. Learning how to make an alfombra is something that many children participate in as a family tradition, however, some wealthy families who live along the processional route will hire artists to come and create one. Here are some interesting tidbits about the alfombras:
1. Each year the family or business creates an entirely new one - not repeating the same design twice.
2. There may be names written on the alfombra in remembrance of a deceased loved one, however, businesses are discouraged from using their branding or emblem.
3. The elaborate alfombras can take upwards of twelve hours to create, and people will stay up all night creating one, however as soon as the procession comes through, they are swept up by a team of municipal cleaners and the materials are discarded.
4. The materials used as part of the alfombras this year included: sawdust, wood shavings, flowers, pine needles, paper, sequins, fruit, and vegetables. Some also had sculptures and religious figurines which are picked up after the procession and donated to the church.
5. Anyone can make an alfombra - but they are usually created by the families and businesses that occupy the buildings along the processional route.
6. Creating a beautiful alfombra can be a great sense of pride for a family - it is a nice gesture to speak positively and praise the family for their work, as they usually sit outside and watch visitors' reactions. If an alfombra is not to your liking, don't express any negative feelings.
The processions are almost a morbid affair. Heavy incense (copal) clouds the air, religious statues depicting Jesus carrying the cross and the Virgin Mary are floated down the streets on the shoulders of up to 80 cucuruchos (the purple-robed men who carry the floats, or andas. The black-veiled women who carry them are called cargadoras). The streets are crowded and virtually impassible through the throngs of spectators. The cucuruchos and cargadoras switch off every few blocks to give others a turn and to relieve their shoulders of the weight of the andas, which can be as heavy as 8000 pounds! Carrying the anda is an honor to show penitence and can be a family tradition, but anyone can make a small donation to their church to participate as a cucurucho or cargardora.
Overall, Semana Santa in Antigua is quite a sight to see. The alfombras are magnificent and beautiful but the crowds, the smoke, and the inconvenience of the processions can send those full-time Antigüeños heading for the airport!
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