Colombia, Holy Week in

Colombia, Holy Week in

Like many other Latin Americans, the people of Colombia celebrate Holy Week with prayer and processions. Although observances take place all over the country, the most famous Holy Week celebrations take place in the town of Popayán, located in southwestern Colombia, at the foot of the Cordillera Central mountain range.


Spanish settlers founded Popayán in the beginning of Colombia's colonial era. Holy Week processions themselves can be traced back to 1558. The people of Popayán credit their nighttime candlelit processions with saving the town early in its history. Although the Spanish colonists built and dominated the town of Popayán, the native peoples still occupied much of the surrounding area and remained hostile to Spanish rule. One night during Holy Week, the natives decided to attack the settlers. As they approached the town they saw a candlelit procession winding its way down through the streets of the city. Mistaking the glowing rope of flames for a mythical serpent of fire, they fled.

In the year 1983 the worst earthquake in the country's history struck the region on Thursday of Holy Week (see also Maundy Thursday). Several of Popayán's most beautiful churches were destroyed and three hundred people were killed, many of them while they were at prayer in the city's holy places. Maundy Thursday processions did not take place that day, but church bells normally silent on Holy Thursday and the rest of the Triduum, the last three days of Holy Week, rolled out funeral knells for those killed that day. The town's citizens vowed to return to their Maundy Thursday celebrations next year, and to rebuild the city's devastated churches in their original style. They have done so with such great success that few tourists visiting the town realize that a recent earthquake devastated the city.


Today the citizens of Popayán prepare in advance for Holy Week, giving their homes a new coat of paint and preparing their gardens so that many beautiful flowers will be in bloom at Easter time (see also Spring Cleaning). Parish volunteers help to decorate the insides of churches and polish precious gold and silver devotional objects, many dating back to the days of the country's first Spanish colonists. Churches display these objects each year during Holy Week.

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, two men designated as car- gueros, those who carry sacred statues in religious processions, visit the Chapel of Bethlehem to decorate the statues of Jesus and his mother Mary that appear in the Palm Sunday processions (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). Colombians view cargueros as men who have been given both a great honor and a great responsibility. This duty is passed from father to son.

Palm Sunday

The following morning, on Palm Sunday, people gather for the blessing of the palms. That afternoon the two images from the Chapel are carried down the hillside amidst waving palm branches. The army band, the police drum corps, and rows of schoolgirls in uniform take part in this palm procession. Thousands of people turn out to watch these processions, and many devout people are moved to kneel and pray in the street as they pass by.

Holy Tuesday

On Holy Tuesday the people of Popayán carry out an old custom known as the "Feast of the Prisoners." On this day a small battalion of politicians, priests, and schoolchildren, accompanied by the army band, march to the local jail bearing cartloads of food. When they arrive the prisoners assemble in the courtyard and are treated to an Easter feast. Those in authority select one prisoner, who has served most of his sentence, to receive an official pardon. He leaves the jail that afternoon, though he spends the rest of the day sitting on a street corner in town, under guard, where people offer him gifts of food and money to help him start his new life. The guards release him that evening. This custom recalls the biblical story of Barabbas, who was released from jail instead of Jesus.

The first nighttime religious processions begin on the evening of Holy Tuesday. The first person in the parade is the sweeper who carries a broom and brushes away all evil from the path of the procession. Church assistants called acolytes follow, bearing jingling bells and containers filled with burning incense. Next come the platforms on which rest the holy statues, borne on the shoulders of the cargueros. Townspeople carrying candles, referred to as alumbrantes, or light bearers, accompany the platforms. Regidors, whose task it is to set a solemn tone and keep everything in order, also walk in the processions, dressed in tuxedos and gloves. Finally, members of religious brotherhoods - such as the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an organization that dates back to the Middle Ages - march, too, cloaked in their traditional garb.

Good Friday

The city's most impressive processions take place on Good Friday. Penitentes appear among the marchers on this day, dressed in brown robes and crowns of thorns. They express repentance for their own misdeeds or compassion for Christ's misery by bringing suffering on themselves. They do so by walking the procession barefoot or in chains, whipping themselves, or shouldering heavy wooden crosses. Similar processions of penitentes take place throughout the country. Other Good Friday religious parades feature the display of holy statues depicting the events associated with Good Friday, including the removal of Jesus' body from the cross and his burial. During these solemn processions the cargueros murmur the rosary, a Roman Catholic prayer addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Holy Saturday

Residents of the town of San Antero host a most unusual event on Holy Saturday. Local farmers compete to see who has the most beautiful burro. Both male and female burros vie for the crown in separate divisions of this beauty contest. Their human handlers costume the animals in dresses and hats, or suits and ties. Many consider the bathing suit contest to be the highlight of the show, along with the ceremony in which the most beautiful vet-certified virgin is awarded the queen's crown. Winners of the contest receive a prize designed to delight any burro: retirement to a life of leisure.

The people of San Juan hold boat races on Holy Saturday. Unlike the burro beauty contest, this event claims a vague tie to Holy Week celebrations, since the race is billed as a contest to see who will be the first to reach the Blessed Virgin Mary and tell her that her son has risen from the dead.

In many Colombian towns and villages people practice a folk custom known as the burning of Judas on Holy Saturday. A dummy, made of rags, straw or paper, is stuffed with firecrackers and then set on fire. Onlookers cheer the resulting blaze and attempt to beat or drown the bits of Judas that remain after the flames die down.

Further Reading

Clynes, Tom. Wild Planet! Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2000. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Milne, Jean. Fiesta Time in Latin America. Los Angeles, CA: Ward Ritchie Press, 1965.