Holy Week, called Semana Santa in Spanish, is when Christians remember and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Easter always falls on a Sunday, but the date varies from year to year since it’s calculated based on the first full moon within the spring equinox.
Although Mexican churches share the same founding principles, Easter celebrations in Mexico vary between regions, making this a unique holiday to experience in different parts of the country.
Despite its name, Semana Santa preparations begin well before the week leading up to Easter. You’ve undoubtedly heard of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Carnival. Christians in Mexico celebrate Carnival, too, as a last hurrah before Lent begins. Speaking of which, Lent is a way to prepare for Holy Week in Mexico, where Christians abstain from their favorite food or activity for forty days. To make it more sustainable, they can choose to break their fast on Sundays.
Lent ends on the evening of Holy Thursday with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. That means Christians get to enjoy delicious Mexican Easter food during the days leading up to the holiday. Get your tastebuds ready because we’ll be talking more about Semana Santa food shortly.
Why is Semana Santa celebrated?
Semana Santa is a seven-day period where Christians reflect on and reenact the moments leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem. Each day of Semana Santa has a designated name and traditions attached to it.
Good Friday is among the most recognized days, which is when Jesus was buried. Semana Santa is also a time for believers to strengthen their faith and reflect on their sins.
How is Semana Santa celebrated?
Christians worldwide celebrate Holy Week, although each country has its unique take on how those celebrations look. So, perhaps the better question is: How do they celebrate Easter in Mexico?
Most businesses and schools in Mexico shut down for two weeks. That way, citizens can enjoy both Holy Week and Easter Week, which is the week that starts on Easter day. Churches hold colorful outdoor processions, with their congregations carrying religious statues and candles. If you’re planning on visiting Mexico during Semana Santa, be prepared to work around roadblocks due to these processions. People also attend mass throughout the week, and reenactments of Jesus’ capture and resurrection are common.
Although churches across Mexico share mostly the same rituals, certain town celebrations diverge. We’ll cover some of Mexico’s most unique Semana Santa traditions shortly.
Pack your fat pants: Easter food in Mexico
If delicious cuisine beckoned you to visit Mexico, you won’t be disappointed with its Semana Santa food. Mexican markets ring in Lent with basketfuls of dried shrimp, cauliflower, and romerito—a rosemary looking, but spinach flavored, plant. The shrimp is used to make a special Easter broth, the cauliflower is for preparing fried cauliflower tortitas, and the romerito is for… well, adding to just about everything.
But in good ‘ole Mexican fashion, the food doesn’t stop there. Pambazo is a Semana Santa specialty sandwich. Its bread is dipped in guajillo pepper sauce and then stuffed with potatoes and sausage. Of course, sweets are plentiful too; bread pudding and fruit drinks are popular Mexican Easter favorites.
Easter in Mexico vs. USA
In the United States, Easter is a widely commercialized holiday, driven in great part by the Easter Bunny. The Easter Bunny hides a basket of sweets and goodies for children to find on Easter day. Although the Easter Bunny isn’t part of traditional Mexican culture, there are similarities between Mexico and the United States when it comes to Easter eggs.
Mexican Easter eggs, known as cascarónes, are prepared by cutting a hole at the bottom of a real egg and draining its yolk. They then paint the eggs with elaborate designs and fill the hollow shell with confetti or tiny toys. These Easter eggs are similar to the U.S., where Americans dye real eggs and hide candy and other small treats in plastic eggs.
But let’s circle back to the real purpose of Easter—religion. Mexico and the U.S. follow similar religious rituals for honoring the days of Semana Santa.
Unique regional Easter traditions in Mexico
Holiday traditions run deep in Oaxaca. During Semana Santa, you’ll get to witness everything from intricately woven palm leaves hung on doors on Palm Sunday to people pouring out of churches in a silent procession on Good Friday.
In particular, Oaxaca City is known for the tradition of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday. While you might be tempted to soak in Oaxaca’s Easter festivities within the city alone, consider joining locals on Holy Monday by traveling to the small town of Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle.
Now, let’s hop up to San Miguel de Allende. Their Semana Santa traditions involve making paper mâché dolls, complete with paint and clothing. What comes next may surprise you—they set fire to those dolls, usually via a firework display. This modified hand-me-down tradition started because Spanish invaders used to burn Judas dolls (for those who aren’t familiar with the Biblical reference, Judas betrayed Christ).
Needless to say, Mexicans weren’t fans of their new Spanish inhabitants, so they created and burned Spanish dolls in defiance. Nowadays, San Miguel de Allende inhabitants set fireworks to political figures they disagree with, maintaining this unique Easter tradition.
No pain, no… faith?
You may have heard chatter about Mexico’s Easter crucifixion with real nails. In certain towns, such as Taxco, Christians undergo public displays of penitence to rid themselves of their sins and prove their devotion to Christianity. Such acts can include whippings and social ridicule. However, the biggest act of all is volunteering to be nailed to a cross. Ouch!
Whether you spend Easter in Mexico City or the countryside, visiting Mexico during Semana Santa is an enriching cultural experience. Embrace the opportunity (minus, perhaps, the rare offer to act out the crucifixion). Mexicans are warm people and are welcoming to those who want to join them in celebrating Easter.