What is Semana Santa?

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By Melissa A. Bartell

Semana Santa.

The first time you hear the phrase, there’s a sense of mystery. What exactly is this celebration? Isn’t it just the Mexican version of Easter?

Well, yes and no. It’s more accurate to describe Semana Santa as the week leading up to Easter.

Technically, Semana Santa is Holy Week, the period of time from Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) to Easter, and it’s half of the two week Catholic observance of the final days of Jesus Christ. (There is a second week of religious import, Semana Pascua, which begins on Easter itself.)

In Catholic tradition, the week begins with Palm Sunday, a feast-day which celebrates Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and grows more somber as the week progresses to Holy Thursday (Jueves Santo) which commemorates the Last Supper, and Good Friday (Viernes Santo) which marks the crucifixion of Christ.

While Pascua – Easter – and the week that follow are joyous times celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, Semana Santa is meant to be a time of contemplation, reflection, and penance, and while devout Catholics often spend Good Friday fasting, these last few days of Lent are often met with an easing of the sacrifices made during the preceding forty days.

Depending on where you are in Mexico, the observations of Semana Santa differ greatly, with the largest commemorations typically found in Oaxaca and Taxco. These include people dressed in period costumes processing through the streets with either statues of Jesus and Mary, or bearing crosses (depending on the day) , and passion plays – dramatic reenactments of the crucifixion. The largest such observance takes place in Iztapalapa, south of Mexico City, where over a million people gather for the Via Cruces every year.

Here in La Paz, Semana Santa tends to be quieter, and more personal, with solemn masses at church, rather than anything happening in the streets.

Whatever the form of observation, Semana Santa is one of the two most important religious holidays in Mexico. The other is Christmas.

In 2018, Semana Santa begins on Sunday, March 25th and ends on Saturday, March 31st.

Melissa A. Bartell is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Heredia.

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