BY EDGAR GONZALEZ
For American students, this time of year is related to the spring break, with all its holiday activities, including college kid drunkenness or simply a fairly sane beach vacation. But for many Mexicans, this time of year signifies “Cuaresma”, which is the preamble for the “Semana Santa,” or holy week. This is a time for celebrating the most important events in the last days of Christ. Mexico is a Catholic country by tradition, though not by law; vernacular Mexican costumes and celebrations have deep connections to Catholicism’s important dates.
The first important event most Mexicans celebrate on this date is the “Cuaresma”, or in English, “Lent.” This is the time for spiritual preparation for Easter. The cuaresma is a 40 day event that starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on holy Thursday, just before Good Friday.
These 40 days represent the 40 days Jesus spent on the Judea desert praying and fasting prior to his final mission. We don’t fast for 40 days, but believers are supposed to fast on this special day. It’s ok to just have one meal and no red meat, but most people barely fast and avoid eating meat on the Cuaresma Fridays. That is why in many Mexican restaurants during Cuaresma season Fridays, they offer special versions of their dishes that do not contain red meat. Fish is acceptable, and in the last century, the church included chicken as an acceptable meat.
On Ash Wednesday, people go to church to get a cross of ash drawn on their foreheads by the priest, while he pronounces the words, “You are dust, and dust you will revert to,” a custom that is credited to Pope Gregory I. The ash comes from the burning of the holy palms that were used the previous year on Palm Sunday. The use of ash in Catholicism is a custom that goes all the way back to the third or second (depending on the source) century but its roots come from the Jewish traditions. The ashes symbolize the temporary passing of our existence in this world, and as a reminder that our place in Heaven awaits us.
This date also signals the end of Carnaval season. Carnaval is closely related to the Holy Week, for it is the celebration that happens just before all the fasting and sacrificing that is to be done to show repentance and worthiness. Carnaval in Latin means “goodbye to meat,” so just before all the Semana Santa doings, and maybe to liven things up for the last time, people have the great party that is Carnaval, not unlike the bachelor party before marriage. This is a custom that goes all the way back to the Romans, who held huge banquets and other bacchanalian excesses.
As the Cuaresma ends, the Semana Santa begins. This Holy week is also a national holiday for the Mexicans regardless of religion. Mexico is now a secular country, so religious holidays are not official, but most schools in Mexico have at least a week of vacation for spring break. Some allow two weeks. The Mexican labor calendar lists three days as obligatory paid vacation from what you would call, for reasons I can’t fathom, Good Friday to Easter Sunday. This vacation almost overlaps with the American spring break, but most of the time it starts at the end of your spring break.
The date of Semana Santa bounces around like crazy because it’s based on astronomy: It’s the first Sunday after the first spring full moon. This year’s festivities start on Sunday April 14th and go all the way to the next Sunday the 21st, and Cabo will be crazy with vacationers from the mainland of Mexico this week. Many of them come over on the ferry and camp out on the beach to save money.
This holy week is meant to celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, and Palm Sunday is the day it all begins, as this is the day that symbolizes when Jesus entered Jerusalem.
Then we have the Holy Monday, that day Jesus drove the merchants from the temple. On Holy Tuesday, Jesus anticipates the treason of Judas. Then we have Spy Wednesday, on this day Cuaresma ends and Easter begins. This is the day Judas conspired to sell out Jesus. On Maundy Thursday He had the last supper and at the end of that night He was arrested. On Friday He is nailed up and killed and on Holy Saturday He is mourned. The celebration comes to a crescendo on Sunday, which is the day Christ comes back to life.
On Holy Saturday a lot of town churches present a play that represents the whole ordeal, which is called Via Crucis. They reenact the passion of Christ. Passion week is so named because of the passion with which Jesus willingly went to the cross in order to pay for the sins of the people. This is an event that attracts a lot of people, believers and non-believers. The biggest Via Crucis in Mexico is the one organized in Iztapalapa in Mexico City. This Via Crucis has had in attendance a crowd of two million spectators and 3,000 amateur actors playing their parts.