Sabahat Ali Rajput, Mexico City
This weekend, the silence in Mexico is deafening.
For the first time in 177 years, the hugely populated borough of Iztapalapa in Mexico City will not burst into a live stage for thousands of Mexican Christians in full-fledged costume ready to re-enact each agonising detail of the famed passion of the Christ. From trails of fake blood to a gut-wrenchingly real nailing of one actor’s arms and legs to a cross, Easter in Mexico is a shock for the senses.
A country whose population is 80% Mexican, who identify as Christian, Mexico celebrates Easter with a unique passion for the passion, and the ritualistic spirit of their Aztec and Mayan ancestry. Paired with the explosive colours of traditional Mexican culture, Easter weekend transforms the streets of this vacation epicenter into a rare spectacle and an emotional roller coaster like no other.
Mexico’s Easter weekend is neatly tucked in between a two-week break from schools and most offices. The first week, “Semana Santa,” or holy week, is largely preparatory. Between the anxious anticipation of school-children eager to be off from classes, and the much-needed break for adults who endure among the longest working hours in the world, the wait is palpable. It’s almost impossible not to notice everyone you meet wearing a noticeably brighter smile.
Palm Sunday – The Welcoming Warm-up
The jubilation explodes all over the country starting from the Sunday before Easter Weekend. To recall and celebrate the entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, entire processions take to the streets, re-enacting Christs’ arrival in a kingly and powerful performance of the Prophet entering the sacred city. Thousands flock before the “person of Jesus” (at times, an actor, and on other occasions, a statue) to spread everything from flowers to twigs, branches, and sometimes even money, before his path. Woven palm wreaths and other objects made from straw are sold all over for this purpose, and emotions run tangibly high.
A Weekend of Unforgettable Emotions
The actual Easter weekend festivities come center stage on the Thursday before Easter, known as Maundy, or Holy, Thursday. The last supper has become a symbol of the uncertainty which prevailed over the disciples before Jesus’ arrest. It symbolizes the mantle of their comradery held together by the silk threads of their faith. Thursday commemorates this historical and solemn breaking of bread in addition to the vigil and passionate prayers of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Some Mexicans travel from church-to-church, visiting up to seven different onesto symbolize the disciples’ vigil while Jesus Christ wept incessantly before his Lord to remove the cup of suffering that awaited him.
The ineffable mourning over the death of Christ is heard in nearly every street. While the sun sets on the Mexican horizon on the Thursday before Easter weekend, the shimmer of an ocean of candles marking the long processions of people carrying statues of Christ and large crosses light up the pathways. What was a triumphant celebration of Christs’ entry into Jerusalem just a week ago is staunchly juxtaposed by the powerful grief of his impending arrest and crucifixion in these demonstrations. On this day, large-scale masses also convene and in Mexico, foot-washing ceremonies abound to recall the Messiah having washed the feet of his disciples.
The very next day, the gargantuan masses and throngs of Mexican devotees in Church proceedings re-appear with a new energy.
Viernos Santo, or Holy Friday.
This marks the commemoration of what may very well be the climactic moment of the passion – the crucifixion of Christ. Whether you join the one million-person gathering in Iztapalapa for the most picturesque and mammoth-scale dramatization of the entire ordeal – what has come to be known as Via Crucis– or decide to unite with any one of the hundreds of local re-enactments, the costumes and emotions are a spectacle to behold.
Enormous groups of the faithful pack the streets carrying images and statues of the Virgin Mary as well as Christ, while sweets and snacks are distributed in countless numbers to the processions and spectators alike.
All the while, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any symbol of the Easter Bunny or discover many chocolate eggs.
But even with all this, Mexicans are not quite done.
The next day, Sabado de Gloria, meaning the Holy, or Glorious Saturday, is a day devoted to condemning Judas Iscariot – originally one of the 12 disciples of Christ – for his treachery and cowardly betrayal of Jesus Christ for a few coins. Mexican Christians construct entire structures – typically made from wood or Paper-Mache – and join in swarms to burn them, cursing him before returning home for the final day of the weekend’s festivities – Easter Sunday.
On Sunday, it’s all about celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Hence, Church bells fill the morning air as songs of celebration and hymns of glee cover the expanse of nearly every inhabited square meter of the country. Ice-cream and street-food vendors line the thoroughfares while young and old alike meet jubilantly – hugging and kissing in celebrationand praise for the return of their Messiah.
So why is the Mexican version of Easter so deeply steeped in ritual, outwardly expression and ceremonies, compared to places like the U.S, United Kingdom and Canada? For this, we need only travel back a few centuries to a very, very different, pre-Christianised Mexico.
Before being evangelised in the 1600’s, Mexico was ruled by the native Aztec and Mayans , who practiced hundreds of ritualistic customs a year. From regular human sacrifices to burning rituals and even blood offerings, they gave expression to their devotion in very ceremonial ways. In fact, some rituals even involved chiefs of a tribe skinning the human sacrifice after killing him and wearing it for nearly a month to please the gods of fertility.
According to the American Historical Association,
“It is also apparent from the documents that the Spaniards were appalled by the fact that the native population practiced human sacrifice and ate human flesh.”
Hence, when Christianity was first introduced to the Mexican natives some 500 years ago by Hernan Cortez, there ensued a tussle for the ages. The blood-stained skirmish and struggle for power between the Aztec/Mayan Indies of Mexico and the Catholic Church compelled the Church’s ambassadors to seriously reconsider their approach.
As the Christian Centuryputs it,
“That religious epic involves the best and worst elements of the Christian story. In the beginning, mass conversions were enforced, in part as a political justification for plunder, enslavement, and the founding of empire. Yet over time native subjects absorbed and appropriated the faith, reinterpreting it on their own terms and making it an indispensable part of Mexican culture.”
Hence, it was this absorption by appropriation which allowed the native populations to apply their ritualistic and largely tribal customs to the tenets of Christianity, and with the passage of time, all Christian customs – Easter notwithstanding – took on the ancient hues of the original Mexican way.
Covid-19 has put an end to that this year. Social distancing has meant that gatherings of any sort are not possible. Where once this sacred occasion would have been celebrated with an outpouring of emotions, it has been replaced with a deathly silence. One can only imagine just how intolerable the quietude brought about by Covid-19, is for Mexican Christians this weekend. If ever you could hear a pin drop in the otherwise bustling world that is Mexico, it is today.
Suzanne Barbezzate, Holy Week and Easter in Mexico, Semana Santa Traditions. Feb. 29, 2020.
Luke Forsyth, Mexico City re-enacts the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Al Jazeerah, April 16, 2010.
How Mexico celebrates Easter, Pin and Travel, April 5, 2020. Retrieved from website on April 9, 2020.
David Lantigua, The New Evangelization in the Americas: On the Catholic Origins of Human Rights, Church Life Journal, University of Notradame, May 23, 2016.
Scott Michael Rank,Aztec Rituals and Religious Ceremonies,link: https://www.historyonthenet.com/aztec-religious-ceremonies-and-rituals. Retrieved April. 9, 2020
Religious Conflicts in the Conquest of Mexico, American Historical Association, retrieved April 9, 2020.
Phillip Jenkins, Catholic, Aztec Mexico, The Christian Century, link: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/notes-global-church/catholic-aztec-mexico. Retrieved April 9, 2020.