Cultural Spotlight – Semana Santa

Semana Santa or ‘Holy Week’ is a very special, religious week in Latin America and specifically here in Colombia. Compared to the United States, the United Kingdom and other predominantly Christian nations, Easter in Colombia is a little bit different and a lot longer in terms of length. Schoolchildren across Colombia get off for the entire week leading up to Easter and most employees in local companies usually will get time off as well to observe the religious traditions, to travel to other parts of the country, or to celebrate with friends and family.

After the festivities of Carnival that goes throughout February comes the beginning of the Eastern season with the beginning of Lent, otherwise known as ‘Ash Wednesday’ or ‘La Quaresma’ in Spanish. Most Christian and Catholic societies around the world observe the forty days of Lent by giving up something important or useful to them. Others pray each day and even fast as a way to atone for their sins. Ash Wednesday is perhaps most known for the fact that observant Catholics go to church that day to have the sign of the cross put on their foreheads by their priests with the grey ash.

While Easter is important in Colombia, Semana Santa, the days leading up to the most holy of days, has also taken on great significance. Students, teachers, and workers from different professions usually get the whole week off if not the most important days of Semana Santa off such as Holy Thursday (Maundy) and Good Friday, which are official holidays in Colombia leading up to Easter weekend.

On these days or even throughout Semana Santa, it is unlikely that you will find many shops, restaurants, or businesses that are open for customers. Instead, most observant Catholics will be at their church during these days and partaking in mass as well. Certain observers will make a habit of visiting different churches in their town or city as well as visiting important altars that have some significance to the community.

For some Colombians, Semana Santa is a chance to have a much-needed break from work to relax with family and friends. This holy week is a spring break for many people throughout the country who choose to take meaning from Semana Santa in different ways. It’s quite clear that many families here will use it as a chance to have a vacation to different places like Santa Marta, Cartagena, Manizales, Pereira, etc. The bigger cities in Colombia are likely to empty out and achieve a rare form of quiet that the remaining locals are likely to enjoy while it lasts. Many small towns and pueblos throughout Colombia are going to have many hundreds or even thousands of new visitors. More religious people will be visiting smaller cities like Popayan, Tunca, or Mompox in Magdalena, which are some of the more famous places to go to during Semana Santa, and which have the largest observations and celebrations of the Christian holidays.

In many of these smaller cities during Holy Week, there are a number of important religious processions, many holiday sweets are given out, and there are many decorations displayed in the town square and in the town churches. While some folks may go to the smaller cities and towns in Colombia, others may decide to travel to the United States or other countries in Latin America for their vacations.

Despite the celebrations, religious observances, ceremonial processions, decorations that are a big part of what makes Semana Santa memorable in Colombia and throughout Latin America, Easter Sunday tends to be a rather quiet and personal affair. Those people who are religiously observant will attend mass and other church services but you won’t see any Easter bunnies, colored eggs, or sweets being exchanged by children. I would say that Easter and the Holy Week leading up to it is a lot less commercialized than it is in the United States, which is a good thing because it puts a lot more focus on the actual meaning of the religious holiday for those who observe it rather than focusing on gifts, sweets, and other distractions.

Holy (Maundy) Thursday and Good Friday are national holidays here in Colombia, leading them to be more significant and observed more. Most Colombians may be surprised to find out that neither the Thursday or Friday leading up to Easter Sunday in the United States are considered national or religious holidays of observance. There are many traditions surrounding Easter in Colombia that are not followed in the U.S. and vice versa.

However, even though countries such as Colombia and the United States observe Easter and other days of this holy week in Christianity differently, there is a common theme cross-culturally that many countries can relate to in that these days are also time to spend with your family, friends, and other loved ones in your life. Getting together during any holiday, religious or otherwise, is a truly universal, human occurrence that all cultures and countries can relate to despite our differences from each other.

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