Semana Santa in Honduras

The pre-Columbian peoples of Honduras (the Maya and the Lenca of the mountainous western part of the country, near Guatemala and El Salvador) were polytheistic (i.e., they worshipped lots of gods), and animistic (i.e., they had gods in the sky, the ground, the sea, and so forth, and they believed in spirits in trees, rocks, rivers, etc.). But four centuries of Catholicism have had an effect on everyone, and now, like most of Latin America, almost the entire population is Christian (there’s one mosque and one synagogue in the whole country); and the majority of those Christians are Catholic (because it’s so much more obvious and sensible to have one big God rather than lots of little gods!). Like the rest of Latin America, various evangelical groups, from the Seventh Day Adventists to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, operate in Honduras; and every town and village seems to have a church of Everlasting Love, or Holy Spirit, or Living God, or some such thing. And of course, there are the Mormons, cycling around in twos, with their shirts, ties, and name tags, and their spectacularly-unbelievable religion (which is so obviously made-up that it makes Christianity look plausible).

Christopher Columbus attended the first Mass held in the New World, in 1502, near Trujillo, on Honduras’s north coast. And nowadays, the most important religious festival of the year is Semana Santa (Holy Week), the last week of Lent and the week from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. I was only vaguely aware of what Holy Week was, and I had to go on to the interwebs and Google for more information, which shows what kind of devout Christian I am; but it follows Jesus’s journey into Jerusalem, his betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and death (I should’ve done some revision by watching the Mel Gibson film, but if it doesn’t involve him being crazy with guns and Danny Glover saying “I’m too old for this shit”, then I’m not interested, thank you).

Honduras isn’t as well-known for its Holy Week celebrations as Guatemala (Antigua is now so famous for its Easter processions that the town’s hotels are booked up months in advance, and the restaurants are so full that people end up eating takeaways on the street); but the country still celebrates the week with processions, church services, and the like.

Having seen some of the services from Palm Sunday onwards in Copan Ruinas (including a sweet candlelit procession of schoolchildren around the town square one evening), I move on to Santa Rosa de Copan on Thursday. Along with Comayagua in southern Honduras, Santa Rosa is famous for its Holy Week celebrations, particularly its Good Friday procession, along a route covered with alfombras (carpets made of coloured sawdust).

As it’s a religious festival in a religious town in a religious country, almost all the shops and restaurants are shut (and I get the impression that, even for the rest of the year, Santa Rosa is quiet). The only tourist attraction in town is the local cigar factory, which apparently produces some of the country’s best stogies (and Honduras is often compared favourably to Cuba in the cheroot department). But the factory’s closed too, so after wandering aimlessly, I end up in the town’s only open public building – the whitewashed colonial cathedral.

It’s Maundy Thursday, and the priest is commemorating Jesus’s washing of his disciple’s feet after the last supper, by washing the feet of 12 male members of the congregation (12 men, that is, not 12 ‘male members’, that would be gross). Luckily for him, I’m not one of them – anyone seeing my deformed trotters for the first time is liable to seriously question the existence of God.

The next day, I’m up and about at the unusually-early time of 7 AM – the procession starts at 8, and I want to walk along the route checking out the sawdust carpets before they’re trampled on. They go on for about 2 km, between the cathedral and the town’s other church, and they cover the route that procession will take – it’s known as the Via Crucis, or the Stations of the Cross, representing the journey that Jesus took with his cross, and with 14 points along the way (the stations) representing the places where Jesus stopped.

Some of the carpets are finished, but most (especially the ones nearer the end of the route) are still being prepared. Bags of coloured sawdust are stacked up on the pavement, and the volunteers (I’m guessing they don’t get paid, although maybe the church provides the materials?) are grabbing handfuls of sawdust and arranging them in patterns over a chalk outline on the road. All of the designs are large and colourful, some are intricate and detailed, all are beautiful, and it’s all done by hand, with people bending over, kneeling, or squatting in the blazing sun (it’s not even 8 and it’s hot enough to have me scurrying into the shade). Finally, when each carpet is complete, the artists relax with a well-deserved cold drink, occasionally damping down their carpet with sprays of water when the wind picks up.

Back at the cathedral, and even though it’s 8, they’re not quite ready yet – this is Honduras, after all. At 8:30, there’s a speech from the priest and some musical announcement from the brass band, and the procession slowly, very slowly, gets going. The priest is at the front (carrying a microphone), and accompanied by white-robed altar boys carrying crosses and candles; behind them is a purple-robed official swinging a censer (a container of burning incense); and behind them is a large wooden platform with a statue of Jesus carrying his cross (unlike in some other Central American countries, including Belize, where there’s an actual bloke playing Jesus, complete with cross). The platform looks heavy (so I understand why they’re moving slowly), and is being carried by more purple-robed men. Behind the platform is a car with speakers on the roof, which will relay the priests’ words at each station (bizarrely, the car also carries adverts for a local disco, an odd combination of holy devotion and secular indulgence). And bringing up the rear is the band, with trumpets, horns, flutes, and drums. The entire procession takes several minutes to pass me, and several more minutes to successfully navigate the first corner, and is followed by what looks like all the town’s locals. This is going to take a while…

While the procession makes it slow way along the Via Crucis, and I search futilely for a place selling coffee, the town’s waste disposal team are already at work, sweeping up the multi-coloured remains of the trampled carpets and dumping them into bags. Hours to create, minutes to walk over, and seconds to sweep away.

At each Station of the Cross, the procession halts, the band stops playing, the purple penitents rest the platform (it’s got special legs, which they carry with them), and everyone has a break while the priest reads a sermon reflecting the event that occurred at that station.

While watching (and listening) from further down the road, waiting for the procession to reach me, admiring the alfombras, and enjoying the smell of fresh sawdust, I get chatting to a local, a man who’s brought his whole family out for the spectacle (and judging from the amount of religious-themed jewellery on display, they’re all quite devout). He cheerfully tells me that, many years ago, in his village, they would make an effigy of Judas, and the locals would enthusiastically beat it to a pulp on Good Friday with bats and machetes, like some kind of violent, religious piñata. Although I doubt that Judas contained any sweets. And if he did, they probably tasted like betrayal.

I spend the rest of the morning doing pretty much the same – wandering up and down the road, checking out the carpets (I’ve now finally found a place selling coffee :-)), and being checked out by the friendly locals (despite Santa Rosa’s popularity at this time of year, the crowd seems to be exclusively local, and I don’t see another foreign tourist all day, quite a change from Copan Ruinas).

Finally, well after midday, the procession passes me at the last station (representing Jesus’s entombment) and turns into the church. Followed by the entire town, and the clean-up crew, sweeping up the last of the carpets. They’ll be another sermon, followed by a recreation of the crucifixion, but I’ve seen enough for today. And although there are other processions and services planned (including an all-woman candlelit vigil tomorrow, and an early morning – 4 AM! – procession on Easter Sunday), Good Friday (and its procession) is, for many people, the highlight of Semana Santa. And now it’s over, Santa Rosa is back to being a sleepy colonial town – even more sleepy than normal, in fact, because nothing’s open today, and won’t be until tomorrow. I wonder if that coffee shop sells food…

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