Every April for a week, one of the busiest cities on the planet becomes a ghost town. Mexico City, with a population of 21 million; a madhouse of cars, people and frenetic activity. But Holy Week in Mexico from April 10 to 16, is anything but “average.” Easter is a major travelling time when Mexicans leave the cities to be with their families.
So, what is all the fuss about? How could any holiday be so important as to empty major cities and transform a whole country overnight?
Religious faith is a very primal part of Mexican life; With about 85% of its population professing Catholicism, its traditions and beliefs are embedded in daily existence and heavily influence people's thinking, activities and hopes for the future. Religion and spirituality are entrenched traditions that have always played a pivotal part in the history of the small Spanish-speaking country south of the Rio Grande.
“The Roman Catholic Church's role in Mexican history goes back to 1519. When Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror of New Spain, landed on the coast of Mexico, accompanied by Roman Catholic clergy, all new Spanish territories were to be conquered in the name of the cross as well as the crown. Since those early days, the Roman Catholic Church has always been present, playing different roles.” (countrystudies.us)
It is no surprise that Easter is a momentous religious occasion in Mexico. The “Semana Santa” holiday, Holy Week in English, runs for seven days up until Easter Sunday. This year it runs from Palm Sunday, April 9, until April 16, Easter Sunday. The story of Christ is a highly revered and important part of Mexican religious tradition. The rituals that take place during Holy Week are meant to re-enact and portray the cataclysmic and tormented end to Christ's life during the darkest days on the Christian calendar.
On Palm Sunday, processions through towns and villages re-enact Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Traditional activities on Maundy Thursday involve recreating the events around the washing of the feet of the apostles, the Last Supper and Jesus' arrest in Gethsemane. To honour the horrific impact of the events on Good Friday, 'passion plays' - dramatic recreations of the crucifixion of Christ, are presented in many communities. The Mexican custom of burning Judas in effigy has become a festive occasion in modern Mexico on Holy Saturday. Cardboard or paper mache figures are constructed, sometimes with firecrackers attached, and then burned. Mexicans take their beliefs very seriously!
There are no egg hunts or chocolate bunnies on Easter Sunday in this faith-driven land. A solemn spiritual occasion in Mexico, it is generally a day when people go to Mass and celebrate quietly with their families. In a spiritual country where Catholic beliefs are at the epicentre of daily life, Easter takes on monumental importance – enough to turn densely populated vibrant communities into sanctuaries of fervent reflection.
However, solemnity is soon ruptured by fireworks, festivities and joyful voices as Mexicans celebrate their King, risen from the dead - and glorious to behold!