Palm Sunday – In Antigua Guatemala

The celebration of Palm Sunday originated in the Jerusalem Church, around the late fourth century. The early Palm Sunday ceremony consisted of prayers, hymns, and sermons recited by the clergy while the people walked to various holy sites throughout the city. At the final site, the place where Christ ascended into heaven, the clergy would read from the gospels concerning the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. In the early evening they would return to the city reciting: “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.” The children would carry palm and olive branches as the people returned through the city back to the church, where they would hold evening services.

By the fifth century, the Palm Sunday celebration had spread as far as Constantinople. Changes made in the sixth and seventh centuries resulted in two new Palm Sunday traditions – the ritual blessing of the palms, and a morning procession instead of an evening one. Adopted by the Western Church in the eighth century, the celebration received the name “Dominica in Palmis,” or “Palm Sunday”.

The celebration of Semana Santa in Antigua Guatemala is the largest in the Western Hemisphere and second in the world only to Seville, Spain. The custom of religious processions came to Guatemala in 1524 with the Spanish conquest and remain today as a sacramental centerpiece for the period of Lent. Each procession is organized by hermandades, or brotherhoods, which coordinate all of the logistics including the cucuruchos (carriers) for the andas (floats). Some of the major processions begin before dawn and conclude after dark requiring upwards of 8,000 participants along the route.

The dramas begin on Palm Sunday with the holy figures of Christ and the Santisima Virgen de Dolores (Holy Virgin of Sorrow) are carried from the churches and through the city streets, by men dressed in purple robes with white waistbands. Originally, only four people carried the holy shrine, only adorned with wild flowers, on their shoulders. Today, these shrines measure as much as 18 meters long and require dozens of men to carry them. These holy shrines or altars have evolved into complex works of art. Altar decorators and artists knowledgeable in the fields of sculpting, scene painting, iconography, and religion compete for the privilege of constructing these shrines.

The entire country is adorned with Lenten decorations as Guatemalans hang curtains, cloth bows and paper decorations of purple, red, lilac and yellow in doorways and windows. Many seasonal flowers during that time of year are also purple such as sacramental orchids, jacarandas, bougainvilleas and perennials which are used to make flower arrangements. The blessed bouquets come from a special palm tree that grows in the west coast called Royal Palm or Monarch Palm (Orbygnia cohune). During the week of Sorrow, in the departments of Escuintla, Suchitepequez, and Quetzaltenango and in the mountains of Sacatepequez, leaves from this royal palm are cut and the blessed bouquets are elaborated with them, cutting or tearing the palm leaf. These bouquets are decorated with corozo flowers that come from the same smelly palm or with season flowers like the purple steatite or red and white carnations.

Complementing the palms are carpets called alfombras forming patterns from colored sawdusts laid-out on the street pavement. The carpets are real masterpieces of Art and it takes months for the families to plan out their carpets. Each one is unique and has its own signature. Carpets are built on the street just in front of their house and families and friends work together in a group effort. It became too a kind of competition to do the most beautiful carpet. Sawdust is pigmented days before and the night before the procession, neighbors start making the carpets and usually work on it all night long to be ready on time. Size and complexity of the carpets differ, as well as materials used. Most of them use sawdust but others add fruits and vegetables, plants, decorations, or anything that comes to their mind.

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