Guatemala, a country whose religion is chiefly Roman Catholic and Protestant, is deeply rooted in local traditions that make the celebration of Easter a colorful and massive one.
Each year, the event that starts Easter week in Guatemala is usually a university parade in which participants wear long hoods to hide their identity. In its origins back in 1898, this parade would go down the streets of Guatemala City making fun of national and political matters (even international ones that may or may not affect Guatemala), as well as injustices the Guatemalan people were enduring at the time.
On Palm Sunday, the smell of palm leaves fills the streets as many pedestrians walk with small branches from the African palm.
Countless processions take place across the country during the week before Easter. The main focus of these processions is a heavy and long dais made of fine wood with an image of Jesus Christ on top.
The dais is carried on the shoulders of dozens of men. Main streets are closed, causing enormous traffic jams for those who dare to drive.
The sound of trumpets and bass drums fill the air. Dressed-up musicians play funeral marches to create a feeling of sorrow and sadness over the suffering of Christ before His death.
Large tapestries of sawdust are dyed and formed into beautiful shapes on the ground for the procession to walk on. The scent of incense is spread by people walking at the head of the procession.
A young Guatemalan woman shared the background of Easter celebration in her country:
“I like the way Easter is celebrated. It can be perhaps an unusual way to proclaim the gospel but as a Christian I do not really mind about this kind of Easter celebration. I love a verse in the Bible that says, ‘But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.’ So I don’t mind about this whole thing. I want Christ to be preached!”
The Easter holiday starts Wednesday and goes through Easter Sunday. People do not go to work, schools are closed and time for leisure abounds during this holiday. The actual festivities start on Palm Sunday and end the following Sunday, Resurrection Sunday.
Special food is prepared this time of year such as curtido (a vegetable mix in which all vegetables are diced and cooked in vinegar to get a sour taste), fish wrapped in eggs, chickpea sweets, fruit mix, pumpkin sweets, pacaya palm wrapped in eggs, and spondias fruits.
Children usually do not receive gifts at Easter as they do at Christmas.
Some evangelical churches in Guatemala take a different approach to Easter. A white-haired man with a secure tone of voice, full of knowledge of the Word of the Lord, lists some events that are celebrated in his church. This man is the pastor of the Church La Viña (the church that houses our Tomás Cranmer Student Center in the suburbs of Guatemala City), and his name is Manuel.
Manuel has been pastoring for about 16 years.
“The Feast of Passover is made to be celebrated during this time of the year as it happened in Jesus’ life.
“We have celebrated here at church with a sort of special meal like the Jews used to celebrate. We roast ram’s meat and eat bitter herbs and hard-boiled eggs brought by small groups or families. Each group or family also has a cup of wine that the leader of of the group drinks first. Then the leader passes the cup to the next person according the leadership degree he/she has.
“We don’t go anywhere else (meaning beaches, water parks or places that are for a ‘leisure time’ during a week like this). We try to give the brothers in Christ who will want to celebrate these special days the opportunity to gather as a church and spend this time praying and remembering what our Savior went through.
“Perhaps there may be a time when we won’t be able to observe this celebration by roasting beef and eating those herbs, but we will still gather to pray and think about this key moment in the story of Christianity of Jesus’ death and resurrection.”
The way Easter is celebrated in Guatemala varies from denomination to denomination. Pastor Manuel belongs to a Pentecostal church, but in a more conservative church Easter is observed with an early gathering at the temple for a special service celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, followed by a delicious breakfast.
Rebeca, the general coordinator of the Tomás Cranmer Student Center, explains that they try to instill in the Compassion-sponsored children a desire to celebrate this time of year as something very special:
“One week before, we start talking with the children about Easter. We share lessons with the students about when Christ was born and when He was risen so that they can really understand this time of the year. This week turns out to be more special because we remember what our Lord Jesus Christ went through.
“We try to focus our classes and our devotions on His death. We give room for a theater play in which the students can recreate all that Jesus went through to enhance the devotion that day.”
Something else happens at the student center the week Easter is officially celebrated: a spiritual retreat.
Wilmer is a 12-year-old boy who is shy with strangers but outgoing with his friends. With hair that sticks straight up from the amounts of gel he uses to comb it, Wilmer shares his point of view about the spiritual retreat:
“I like the spiritual retreat for all the different fun activities we get to do there. The activity I like the most is the bonfire because that is when we get to hear about God and we are ministered [to] by the message.
“I think God is real and when I grow up I want to imitate the way my family celebrates Easter. I will want to go to church and coexist with my own family in this time of the year because I see it as something important. I want to give Jesus the place He’s meant to have in my heart.”
Wilmer was baptized last year at the Tomás Cranmer spiritual retreat. What a blessing this retreat is for all these children and how good it is to know that this student center strives to create in them the need to celebrate this special holiday and not underestimate it.
Wilmer’s grandfather shares,
“The time I spent before accepting Christ as my Savior was something worthless and that completely changed once I became a Christian.
“Now, as my heart has changed from being a very cold one to a very warm one because of Christ, I am more than thankful to celebrate Christ’s resurrection! I love to go to church and take my family there. They love going there and we all are so thankful with our Lord Jesus for having changed all of us to believe in Him.”
Then Rebeca, the center’s general coordinator, adds something that is important to remember:
“We know we can make the best of the efforts to get the children to not forget to celebrate this festivity as it should be, but in the end, the family’s values and the way they see this celebration will mark the way Easter will (or won’t) be celebrated in the future.”
Another year will fade away and a new one will come. The time to celebrate Easter will be here again but a question arises: For how long and by how many will Easter be celebrated by the time this generation becomes adults? Someday this generation will be the one to make the decisions in their own families and by then, will the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ be significant enough for them to stop and celebrate?