– While U.S. celebrants enjoy egg hunts and chocolate bunnies for Easter, their Mexican counterparts will commemorate Holy Week with a smorgasbord of activities including crucifixion re-enactments, offerings to a donkey statue and – get this – holy chia pets. In the center of a flurry of Easter action, Oaxaca makes a sensible base for sampling the Mexican version of one of the most important weeks in the Catholic calendar.
The city has a long history of influence from the Dominican order, with its famous Santo Domingo church and several ex-convents, including the buildings that now house La Quinta Real and Hotel CasAntica. Devotion to the area’s unique and long-held religious customs, as well as its particular religious icons — such as the famous statues of la Virgen de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude) in the downtown basilica, el Señor de las Peñas (Lord of the Rocks) in Villa de Etla and el Señor de Rescate (Lord of Rescue) in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán – make the international Holy Week feel very local to Oaxacans, explained Agustina Díaz Alegría, a pastor at the Basilica de la Soledad (the Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude).
The region’s many Semana Santa activities certainly are abundant enough to build an eventful trip for travelers seeking a glimpse into the devotional life in Mexico. And, even better, nearly all the activities are free. But information about some of the happenings isn’t available even a few weeks in advance, so – if you go – keep your eyes peeled for last-minute signs, posters and even graffiti announcing tempting activities beyond those listed here.
The Friday of Sorrows (Viernes de Dolores), March 22
Altars: Devotees decorate homes, businesses and government buildings with altars to Our Lady of Sorrows and purple – representing sorrow – ribbons, flowers, paper and cloth. Altars often include wooden symbols, flowers, candles, food, palm fronds and small topiary animals made of chia plants and clay pots (i.e. chia pets). The tourist corridor from Santo Domingo to the Zocalo (town square) via Macedonia Alcala is a good place to see these.
Folk Art: The Instituto Oaxaqueño de las Artesanías’ Semana Santa art fair opens in the Jardín Conzatti. The fair runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day until March 31, with artist exhibits and demonstrations from 5 to 7 p.m. daily through March 20. The Oaxacan artists who sell their products at the fair are selected to represent a larger community of similar products from the state’s eight distinct regions.
Music and poetry: At 6 p.m., Carmen de Abajo church is scheduled to host a poetry reading and a concert of religious music, with performances by the city choir and a Mozart string quartet.
Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos), March 24
Palm blessings: All city churches will bless palm fronds and ornaments made of them. Carmen Alto, for example, will bless palms starting at 6:30 a.m. at the stone cross at Xólotl and Rufino Tamayo streets. You’ll see crosses made of woven palm fronds for sale throughout downtown, especially near churches.
Holy Monday (Lunes Santo), March 25
Stations of the Cross: Residents of Teotitlan del Valle, a weaving village about 17 miles east of Oaxaca City, conduct a procession through the village starting at the Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Precious Blood of Christ) church at about 9 a.m. The procession, which includes children dressed as angels and one costumed as a Roman centurion mounted on a horse, stops at altars – draped with some of the woven rugs for which Teotitlan is famous – representing the Stations of the Cross. A fiesta follows.
Holy Tuesday (Martes Santo), March 26
Witching Hour: Xoxocotlán, a town about 3 miles south of Oaxaca City, celebrates a tradition called Martes Brujas (Witches Tuesday) on the five Tuesdays of Lent plus Holy Tuesday. The name comes from Colonial tradition of lighting special lamps called “brujitas,” or little witches, according to Xoxocotlán’s municipal website. The celebration includes concerts featuring female singers in an oil-lamp-lit central park, Parque Central, and the consumption of tamales and atole, a warm cornmeal drink. For the final concert in this year’s series, Lila Downs – a Mexican-American singer who won a Grammy Award this year – will perform starting at 8 p.m.
Holy Thursday (Jueves Santo), March 28
Last Supper: The village of Teotitlan del Valle re-enacts the Last Supper with a noon meal involving villagers who represent apostles, as well as their families and friends. The church also conducts a foot-washing ceremony in the evening.
Seven Churches in Seven Hours: Catholic Oaxacan families traditionally visit seven churches in the evening of Holy Thursday, starting around 5 p.m., and view their chia-pet-laden altars for Our Lady of Sorrows. If you want to participate, you can visit any seven you like. Sticking to downtown churches will make it easier, and there are plenty to pick from. Some popular options include Santo Domingo church, the cathedral, the Basilica de la Soledad, el Templo de San Felipe Neri, San Francisco church, La Merced church, Carmen Alto church, Carmen de Abajo church and San Agustín church. All of them will have Holy Thursday liturgies and foot-washing ceremonies, and will stop ringing their bells today as a sign of mourning.
Good Friday (Viernes Santo), March 29
Crucifixion Re-enactments: You can see re-enactments of Christ’s passion and crucifixion in several places throughout the state, including in Oaxaca’s San Juan Chapultepec neighborhood, west of downtown; in the nearby town of Tlalixtac de Cabrera, about 6 miles northeast; and in San Jose Chiltepec, 125 miles north of Oaxaca city. In advance of the re-enactments, called Via Crucis, the men selected to represent Christ often train for months to carry out the role. Starting times vary, but these re-enactments usually begin around 10 or 11 a.m. and take several hours to complete.
Silent Parade: From 6 p.m. to approximately 10 p.m., you can view an annual silent procession, “Procesion del Silencio,” in downtown Oaxaca. It starts at Oaxaca’s Oaxaca’s Sangre de Cristo church and runs up and down Macedonia Alcala. The procession isn’t truly silent – drums and trumpets will sound – but participants and observers keep quiet as a sign of mourning for Jesus Christ’s death. City churches bring out their icons, banners and relics, adorned with flowers, for the procession. Also look for hooded penitent men carrying crosses and women with candles representing the Virgin Mary. “Remember to keep quiet; don’t clap,” said Carlos Roman Olmedo Hernández, festivities and traditions coordinator at Oaxaca’s tourism bureau. “It’s a day of mourning.”
Holy Saturday (Sabado Santo), March 30
Easter Vigil: Devotees offer their condolences to the Virgin Mary during the day, with churches holding nighttime Easter vigils. Times vary, but Carmen Alto will begin the Easter vigil – complete with the Blessing of the New Fire ceremony, an Easter candle procession, the renewal of baptismal promises and a liturgy – at 10 p.m.
Easter (Pascual), April 1
Ringing in Mass: Church bells will ring again today to call the faithful to many Easter masses. Starting at 7 p.m., Carmen Alto will lead a traditional procession through parish streets with the Señor de la Resurrección (Lord of the Resurrection) icon. After that, the party starts. Dancers from Cuilapan will perform the traditional Danza de las Plumas (Dance of the Feathers). Also expect fireworks.
Carnaval, April 2-6
In most places, Carnaval (Carnival) occurs before Lent (Feb. 6-12 this year), reaching a peak on Fat Tuesday. But Teotitlán del Valle always celebrates its version after Easter Sunday instead. On each of the five days of festivities, a house in a different section of the village hosts a party, which eventually moves to the City Hall for dancing and other activities. Four men from each section of town also disguise themselves as two masked old men – who tell jokes in Zapotec – and their wives — who laugh loudly – to participate in the traditional Danza de los Viejos (Dance of the Old Men).
Jennifer Kho is a freelance reporter and editor who spent the last decade focused mainly on technology and business stories. Her move to Oaxaca, Mexico, in October with her husband and pets has expanded her journalistic – and other – horizons. When she’s not playing with her two cats, dog or snake, Jenn loves meeting new friends with different perspectives from around the world, as well as sampling and learning to cook new-to-her international dishes.
Matt Krupnick is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times. Matt and his wife are thoroughly enjoying a year in Oaxaca, Mexico, where the mole is plentiful and the mezcal flows freely.