Semana Santa

No one celebrates Easter the way Antigua, Guatemalans celebrate Semana Santa, Holy Week, with rituals that date back to old Spain. Magnificent, ephemeral festival art comes to life and is lovingly trampled. Along the streets, people cluster in groups around artists creating beautiful but fleeting works of art in the form of carpets on the cobblestone streets. Some are made of painted sawdust sprinkled through stencils fashioned by local craftsmen, or artistically composed from the tiny grains of wood. Others are made from fresh and dried flowers, many with elaborate images or Mayan patterns. Some are more striking for their simplicity: one consisted mostly of fresh white lilies with long stems, another a mat of pine needles with small bouquets at intervals around the border.

My last year in Guatemala, the Women of Burrito, as they called themselves, invited a group of fellow teachers and friends to spend the night at their places in Antigua on Callejito del Burrito. We would make our own alfombra, or traditional carpet, for Semana Santa in the wee hours before the procession of a nearby church, Jesus de la Caida San Bartoleme, would pass, at about eight a.m., on its way to snake through the city streets.

Friends arrive with flowers

I arrived in the afternoon, two bouquets of flowers in hand, in time to meet friends returning from town with overflowing armfuls of blossoms. We scattered to find water buckets, baskets of chips, and wine bottles. Taking stock of our ingredients, there seemed to be a preponderance of yellow, so someone suggested we create a sun at the center. Michael and Anita, art teachers, organized ideas for a carpet design, using the sun as a focal point. We each drew a variation before heading out to dinner and Michael, selecting elements from our drawings, merged them into a workable design. Walking back to Burrito late at night after dinner out, we observed many locals already hard at work at carpet construction. Sawdust carpets could be laid the night before; floral creations would be fresher in the morning.

At five a.m., we rose, downed some coffee and pastries, and carried the flower buckets, along with other essential tools, out to the street. After hosing down the cobblestones, the first layer was a bed of soft green pine needles. Then the yellow sun emerged, circled by sunflowers, each design growing slowly like a blossom opening. Some of us cut flowers or pulled petals. Even the greens could be used, some as outlined rays emanating from the sun, others as a soft background of rose petals. A long brown pod was cut open and the wheat-like seeds inside were used as a border. The neighbors next door, three Guatemalan women, were building their own alfombra at the same time. We admired each other’s progress, and appreciated their suggestions. As the sky grew light, as if building to a crescendo, we finished our mission. We sprayed the carpet with water again to keep it moist and fresh-looking, giving it life for just a few more hours.

Neighbors working on their own alfombra
The team (me, third from left)

The streets were getting crowded as spectators meandered along the route to admire the endless variety of carpets, each one unique. We had some time to wander, too, viewing the carpets, until the streets became impassable. It was hard finding space to walk in some places, and everyone was careful not to step on the carpets until the first procession float had passed by.

Spectators gathered in anticipation.

When the first float approached, we assumed our positions to watch the procession, excitedly awaiting the ceremonial destruction of our morning labor. Purple-gowned guards formed a barrier along the edges of the road, keeping spectators back. A series of marchers came slowly by—a cadre of Roman soldiers; men gowned and hooded in red, hoods reminiscent of those used by white supremacist groups in the States but designed from costumes of ancient Spain that had no such connotation. Incense bearers dispersed heavy smoke among the marchers, the thick atmosphere adding to the mystique of the day.

First steps across our alfombra

A float carrying the nearby church’s distinctive kneeling Jesus, carried by men in purple, was the first to step over the carpet. Only then, after Jesus had passed, did the bystanders join the procession, all treading over the magnificent carpets, the parade expanding, swelling like waves spreading out from a motorboat. A brass marching band or two blared by, golden horns glinting in the sun, followed by carts of additional statues. Then an elegantly adorned Madonna floated into view, flanked by women dressed as shepherds or draped in black lace. Followers, pilgrims, worshippers, they all picked up flowers and made their own bouquets as they walked.

Before long, the crushed petals and strewn sawdust were swept up by municipal workers and shoveled into trash trucks. It looked as though the procession had never happened!

This post is an excerpt from my book, Go Wherever You Want (working title).

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Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

37 thoughts on “Semana Santa

  1. What a gorgeous festival! So many colours and detailed designs on the streets. And I love how you take it through to the end with the clean up. It really shows that the hard work was for one purpose.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Guatemalans seem to be good at this approach to festivals. Although not so good at keeping trash picked up in other places, they do come full circle for festivals. It’s a creative and memorable event!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Spectacular in every respect. I love the photo of the long fluorescent purple sawdust carpet. Hard to believe someone didn’t make a stray step; sad to know the artwork was so temporary. Also, I wondered if wind is ever a problem or if the streets are sufficiently protected by the adjacent buildings? Finally, is the processional on Palm Sunday to mark the beginning of Holy Week or Easter to mark the end? Either way, it’s safe to say the magnitude of this celebration goes far beyond any we have in the States. Thank you for a wonderful story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Dave. I’m sure there are flaws in every one of those creations, but that’s part of the process. Wind isn’t a problem there. There are many processions every day for the week – each one sponsored by a different church or civic group. It’s quite a community celebration!


  3. You have had such rich experiences and you share them with such love for the people who embraced you. I always love your stories and photographs.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Absolutely loved this. I’ve often wondered how the carpets were made. So beautiful! We were not in Antigua for Semana Santa but did see the enormous floats as they worked at repairing them. We were in San Miguel de Allende one year for Semana Santa and the procession sounds similar but without the carpets.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There’s another holiday in Guatemala that does a similar thing – creating artwork that will be destroyed that day. I’ll post about it around November 1st. I appreciate your reading and comment.


  6. This procession of flowers is absolutely amazing. Your photos and captions catch it all. Being a huge flower lover I am enthralled with the beauty and colors of all those flowers and I wince at the idea of them being trampled and it all gone in such a short amount of time. But what a tradition!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Pam. It’s a tropical climate for the most part so there’s a ready supply of flowers, but they do go through and destroy an amazing amount of them. What a wonderful celebration to take part in!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This looks such a wonderful celebration, with the whole community playing their part in it! The carpets are so beautiful even if transient and I loved seeing the traditional costumes worn by many of the women. It must have been very special to have been invited to play a part in the event.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sarah! It was a unique opportunity and great fun to take part. The traditional clothing that indigenous women in Guatemala wear varies from village to village. Each group has it’s own patterns, all colorful and lovely.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This post was overwhelming, in an amazing way. I could almost smell the flowers. Their devotion to the faith is astonishing given that it was originally forced upon them. I need to see more of Guatemala….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your observation about their faith is quite apt. I have often thought that. There is a strange blend of indigenous traditions and Christianity there. It’s a way they have adapted the culture that was, actually, you are right, forced upon them and most of Latin America.

      Liked by 1 person

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