Judas, Burning of

Judas, Burning of

Judas was one of Jesus' twelve disciples. According to the Bible, when Jesus and the disciples traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover Judas betrayed Jesus'whereabouts to the city's religious authorities. This act unleashed the chain of events ending in Jesus'crucifixion and death (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). As a means of symbolically punishing Judas for his misdeed, people in many parts of the world practice a folk custom known as the "burning of Judas" during Holy Week. In the days leading up to the ceremony participants prepare an effigy, or life-sized doll, of Judas. When this effigy is set ablaze, onlookers cheer. In some places the Judas doll is hanged or beaten rather than burned.

This vicious custom, once practiced in many corners of Europe, inflamed lingering prejudices against Jewish people, who, in Christian legends, were often represented by the figure of Judas. In Latin America, the practice took on a slightly different twist. In addition to venting their anger at Judas, many Latin Americans express their anger at unpopular or corrupt leaders by burning their effigies alongside that of Judas, or by making their Judas doll resemble one of these contemporary figures.

Latin America

In Mexico the burning of Judas takes place on Holy Saturday. Effigies of Judas and other unpopular public figures hang in plazas and on street corners. Mexican folk tradition calls for stuffing the heads of these dummies, made of straw, paper, and rags, with firecrackers. When the dummies are set ablaze, they burn furiously and their heads burst open, torn apart by exploding firecrackers. Children delight in the noisy, chaotic scene.

In past times Mexican folk artists often attached bags of candy, bread, clothes, umbrellas, and even bottles of alcohol to the Judas, so that these would be thrown into the crowd when the dummy exploded. They also crafted Judas dolls to look like unpopular political or religious figures. During times of political unrest this bit of folk protest prompted the government to outlaw the burning of Judas dolls that resembled a particular person or personified a certain social class. Nowadays Mexico City politicians appear to be more concerned about public safety than ridicule. Current citywide regulations prohibit exploding the Judases by means of fireworks.

The Peruvians burn Judas in effigy on Good Friday. The doll representing the despised disciple is tossed into the flames along with the effigies of unpopular politicians.

In Venezuela people burn Judas in effigy on the evening of Easter Sunday. Townspeople craft their Judas dolls to closely resemble a local or national leader, or any public figure whom they dislike. By doing so they provide themselves an opportunity to criticize this figure publicly, since, whatever its appearance, the effigy will be identified as "Judas." Just as in Mexico, these dolls are stuffed with fireworks. Before burning the effigies the townsfolk parade them through the streets and then display them in the town's plaza, where people may punch, slap, or insult the doll. The gathering crowd enhances their enjoyment of this parade and display by setting off fireworks and opening bottles of liquor saved for the occasion. Then a local person steps forward to read a list of accusations made against Judas and, by extension, against the local figure whom he represents. The citizens who write this list compose it in verse and weave much humor into their complaints. After this recitation someone sets flame to the doll. As the effigy burns, its firecracker-laced limbs explode. Onlookers laugh, cheer, and shout, heaping more abuse on Judas. More drinking and dancing round out the evening's entertainments.

Europe

Researchers believe that the Latin American customs described above have their roots in old Spanish traditions that were imported to the Americas during the colonial era. Judas burning was also practiced in Portugal. Judas burning occurred in other European countries besides Spain. An old Czech folk tradition called for chasing Judas on Good Friday and burning Judas on Holy Saturday. Those who attended mass on Good Friday ran through the aisles after the service was over, sounding wooden noisemakers to chase away Judas. What's more, groups of boys rambled down streets and byways raising a racket, which in this case served to frighten away evil. On Holy Saturday Czech villagers made a straw-covered wooden cross and set it inside a stack of logs. This straw-and-wood construction represented Judas. After attending the Easter Vigil, boys lit lanterns from the paschal candle and then ran to set flame to the Judas bonfires. Judas burning and its related noisemaking customs died out among the Czechs in the early twentieth century.

Polish tradition taught that an effigy of Judas should be thrown from a high church steeple on Spy Wednesday. Youngsters then dragged the dummy through the streets, beat it with stones, and threw the remains of the doll in a river or pond.

Judas burning also occurred in a few places in England. In Liverpool's South End bands of children still practiced this custom in the late twentieth century. After procuring an old suit of men's clothes they fashioned a Judas dummy and stuck a pole up its back. Then they paraded it about the neighborhood, begging for pennies. After building up their tiny treasury they burned the Judas effigy in the middle of the street. Local policemen often broke up these proceedings as fire hazards.

In some parts of Greece villagers still burn or hang Judas in effigy on Easter Sunday or on Good Friday. A related Greek superstition teaches that when a piece of crockery breaks on Good Friday, every sharp edge cuts Judas. In some villages people purposefully broke pottery on this day in order to punish the treacherous disciple.

Africa

A variation of Judas burning also takes place among certain African Christians. In Nigeria people carry life-sized effigies of Judas through the streets on Good Friday, giving the community an opportunity to jeer at him. After these parades reach their destination someone steps forward to formally denounce Judas' treachery and to flog the effigy for Judas'crime.

See also Czech Republic, Easter and Holy Week in; England, Easter and Holy Week in; Greece, Easter and Holy Week in; Mexico, Easter and Holy Week in; Poland, Easter and Holy Week in; and Spain, Easter and Holy Week in

Further Reading

Clynes, Tom. Wild Planet! Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976.

Web Site

"The Chasing and Burning of Judas," an article about Judas burning in the Czech Republic, written by Petr Chudoba and posted under the "Holidays and Traditions" section on Local Lingo's Czech Republic site: http://www. localingo.com/countries/czech_republic/culture/judas.html
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002