April 21, 2019
San Miguel, de Allende, Mexico
One of the coolest things about our travel lifestyle is getting to experience the holiday traditions of the countries we visit. We’ve been fortunate to celebrate two “biggies” (Christmas and Easter) here in San Miguel. After strolling through San Miguel’s streets, parks and colonnades adorned with poinsettias and ornate Christmas decorations, I figured that Easter was going to be something spectacular. Believe me, it was over the top. Way more than anything either one of us have ever seen or experienced.
Holy Week here in San Miguel (Semana Santa) actually lasts two weeks. Make that 2.5 weeks. There were processionals, church services and events going on continuously throughout the period, but we attended only a few. Here’s what we saw, heard and fell in love with the past two weeks.
Holy Week activities started when a statue of Jesus, called El Senor de la Columna (Lord of the Column), was carried from Atotonilco, a village about 7.5 miles away. The statue itself dates back to 1750 and depicts Christ leaning on a column (thus the name). During transport the statue is covered with a large shroud to protect it from inclement weather and humidity. The processional began the week prior to Palm Sunday at midnight and made stops at several communities along the way. Around 5 am the procession arrived at San Miguel, was uncovered and taken to San Juan de Dios Church, where it is housed during the Holy Week activities.
This holy season marked the 200th anniversary of this solemn and reverent tradition.
The Spanish word “milagro” means miracle. Milagros are small, metal religious charms that are nailed or pinned to various crosses or the clothing of statues of saints. A few stores have baskets brimming with them. The charms depict everything from arms and legs to animals and religious icons. In Mexico, milagro use is connected with a ritual called “manda” which means bequest or promise. A person asks a favor of a saint and once the favor is granted the person repays the favor by making a pilgrimage to the shrine of that saint and pinning the milagro to the statue of the saint and saying a prayer of thankfulness.
Some people also carry a milagro with them in their pocket, wallet or purse. A spiritual healer can bless the milagro and recommend that the person carry it around in order to cure a physical ailment, to ward off evil, or to bring about good fortune.
We didn’t want to take any chances with this. So, we rummaged through several baskets of milagros until we found exactly what we thought we needed. John got a heart, a St. Christopher for safe travels and a little house for finding great house sits, I guess. I got a leg for my bad knee, eyeglasses for my bad eyes, a hand for my arthritic finger and of course love birds for our love. In fact, as I sifted through the charms, I probably could have used everything in the basket! Maybe I’ll go back again and check them out!
Two very joyous processions happened on Palm Sunday. The first was a live depiction of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Every year It is organized by the Church of San Francisco and starts at Capilla del Calvario, which is…(wait for it)…right down the street from our house sit! In fact, as we left our front door we ran into Jesus’ donkey tethered to the side of the street. Of course, I had to stop and pet the furry critter and thank him for his contribution to this wonderful celebration.
The street was decorated and adorned with palms and flowers and there were vendors selling really cool braided palms and branches all along the route. Jesus arrived and mounted my donkey friend and the event commenced. Men clad in authentic costumes represented the 11 Apostles (Judas gets his turn later in the week) and members of the church followed behind singing hosannas and waving palms. It was a moving depiction and we both joined in the procession along with the church members. I didn’t know the Spanish songs, but no one cared. The Church of San Francisco has done this procession for over 20 years. They welcomed us with both smiles and hugs.
Later, a much longer, more elaborate cortege began at Parque Juarez, continued down Calle Sollano and ended at the Jardin (downtown area). There were loads of adorable children clad in white along with adults singing hymns. There was even a local band. I was sitting on the curb and one of the priests doused me with holy water. John was down at the corner taking photos and he got splashed as well.
I don’t know whether it was the donkey, the beautiful decorations, the joyful significance of the event, the warm embraces of the people or the holy water, but we walked back to our house feeling thoroughly blessed.
Of all of the activities surrounding Holy Week in San Miguel, this is the most serious and solemn. Waking up in the morning, we knew immediately that something serious was going on, because the church bells weren’t ringing and there were no firework bangs. Businesses were closed and the streets were shrouded with purple banners and purple cloth was draped around many windows.
The sentencing of Christ took place in front of the courtyard of the Church of Santa Escuela by the Jardin. Roman soldiers accompanied a statue of Jesus, the charges were read, Pilate washed his hands, and the crowd shouted, “Guilty!”
Then the processional began.
A woman clad in traditional Mexican black mourning garb led followed by a statue of the Virgin Mary with a long purple train. Each participant that carried the statue was wearing black. None of them spoke. None of them smiled. None of them waved at the crowd. They were all somber and sorrowful as they slowly walked down the street.
Children dressed as angels followed, tossing chamomile onto the cobblestones as they passed.
Roman soldiers came next and they marched to a slow funeral cadence announced with a steady, ominous drum beat. Then two men, dressed in loincloths were led by ropes, bound to cross ties and whipped on their back and shoulders. Oh my! I wasn’t expecting this. I found out later that these parts (the men getting whipped) are always played by the main priests. It’s been done like this since 1765.
Then a group of men dressed in purple sackcloth and crowns of thorns dragged heavy wooden crosses on their shoulders. Some of them had “helpers” (younger men or boys) who were also clad in purple and carried skulls. Again, I was sitting on the curb, right next to these guys, and I noticed that most of them were shoeless.
Finally, the statue of Christ carrying the cross emerged. He was wearing a purplish robe, a crown of thorns and a face filled with pain and anguish.
The Christ statue was taken to the Jardin area, where the Virgin Mary statue (Jesus’ mother) awaited. The two statues were brought face to face and the crowd hushed as Jesus was brought before his mother, raised his head and looked directly into her eyes!
I had read about this particular Jesus statue having a mechanism built into it, that makes the head actually move. Regardless of how it happened it was an amazing moment full of emotion. I was awed. The religion of San Miguel literally came alive in the street and we were there to see it.
With the somber and somewhat grisly depictions that happened here during Holy Week, we all needed a break. Today is Easter Sunday and John and I woke up to the church bells ringing once again. We heard a firecracker go off and John rolled over and kissed me and said, “Happy Easter!” After two days of silence, we found comfort in the bells clanging and the fireworks banging!
But wait, there’s more.
The final event was like nothing I’d ever seen, or even heard of before. After being so serious all week, we figured that people needed to blow off steam, so this is accomplished by…well…blowing up things. Around thirty brightly colored 6-foot papier-mâché figures were strung up across Calle San Francisco on the north side of the Jardin (town square). Traditionally, these figures were supposed to represent the betrayer of Jesus, Judas Iscariot (I told you he’d have a turn) but nowadays, they are more comical characters representing politicians and downright bad dudes and dudettes through history.
Fireworks were wrapped around their waists and one by one they are lit. They spun around, they jerked, they writhed, they shot rockets into the crowd and then, finally, they EXPLODED! Not just a pop, but with big KA-BOOMS! As in, I felt the ground shake. Arms and legs went flying in all directions.
After about 29 of them were demolished the final figure, which had been in hiding, was brought out and strung up. I kind of thought it might be the Judas figure, or a devil, or witch or something…but nooooo. Remember we are in Mexico. For the finale, we got to see Donald Trump spin and explode to the thunderous applause and cheering of the crowd.
Afterwards kids (and adults too) ran through the street collecting body parts just like candy from a piñata. We learned that it’s a real point of pride to get a head. Go figure. This is Mexico! After a week of grave religious remembrances and rituals, it’s time for food, family and fun!
This next week, on Wednesday, a final procession will happen as the statue of the Lord of the Column is taken back to Atotonilco. Sigh!
No matter what beliefs you have or religion you profess, Holy Week in San Miguel is powerful. You can’t help but feel moved by the spirit of faith and the wonderful people who live here.
Without a doubt, this was our best Easter ever!