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Easter Traditions in Honduras (Nacatamales, the Alfombra, and More)

Lew is an American expat living in Honduras. A former gold assayer, he is now a photographer and conservator of Central American culture.

Icon of the Crucifixion, Barrio El Eden, Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Icon of the Crucifixion, Barrio El Eden, Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Semana Santa

Easter is the most observed holiday of the year in Latin America, and the grandest of religious holidays among Catholics. Although celebrated in much the same way everywhere, Honduras gives Semana Santa her own special twists.

In Honduras, Easter Is a Week

In Honduras, Easter is not a day, but a full week. Everything comes to a standstill, and streets that would normally be full of bumper-to-bumper traffic are deserted. Pedestrians no longer have to play the human version of “Frogger” to cross the streets, but there are few pedestrians.

If you have something scheduled for that week that needs government help, you must plan ahead or plan to be late. The whole system comes to a standstill from Palm Sunday until the Monday after Easter. Some leading commercial businesses will be open for half the week, and a few services like police, fire, and hospitals will be available, but after Wednesday at noon, you're on your own. For one week of the year, most of the city is like a ghost town.

A busy street in Honduras on Semana Santa

A busy street in Honduras on Semana Santa

There are two schools of thought about Semana Santa: the secular and the Catholic. In Tegucigalpa, they seem to divide the populace just about in half. The streets are empty because the secular half has fled the city for the north-shore beaches. The devout half is down on Avenida Cervantes preparing the Alfombra or awaiting the Procession.

Easter Week is the primary tourist season in Honduras and the Caribbean. Cruise ships make the rounds, most stopping at Roatan, and some visiting mainland ports like Trujillo and Tela. The ships attract vendors who come north to sell their wares, and thousands of young Honduran men ogling blonde, blue-eyed young women. They are a true rarity here. But the beaches are also full of typical families looking for a few days of liberation from the boring drudgery of the city.

The Spirit and Flavor of Easter

We see the real spirit of Semana Santa in the cities and in countless little pueblos across the country. Vendors sell palm fronds to be strewn in the path of amateur actors portraying Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Throughout the week, different religious orders hold their own enactments and ceremonies, sometimes at night in utter silence. These are easy to miss unless you're acquainted with a particular order. The fundamental focus of Semana Santa, however, is Good Friday. The preparations and processions for this Dia de la Crucifixion make Easter Sunday rather anti-climactic.

People gather with family and friends and traditional foods are prepared. These include soups made from dried salted fish, and Sopa de Capirotadas, a soup of cheese dumplings made especially for Lent. Rosquillas En Miel and mounds of huge steaming Nacatamales round out the gustatory delights. It is a festive time for families. Later in the day, it's customary to go see the Procession.

The Alfombra

Each year in Tegucigalpa on Thursday before Good Friday, hundreds of volunteers, most of them students at local high schools or the University, gather on Avenida Cervantes to perform a miracle. They intend to change the street's drab pavement into a splendid and vibrant work of art.

Months before, each of these civic groups or schools is assigned a panel, about one-tenth of a block of pavement on which to place their unique design for this holy occasion. Stencils are made and bags of colored sawdust are delivered on Thursday. Then the real work begins, sometimes lasting until early morning on Friday. Watching the construction of the Alfombra is almost as popular as the procession itself. Police remain with the artists through the night to ensure their security.

Work of the Volunteers

The commissioners mark each of the two hundred panels with chalk and a number, and each group starts by laying down a base color on their specific area. The volunteers spread the colored sawdust with trowels, then pack it solid and smooth by the weight of people walking on cardboard sheets. Next comes the stencil work. Each stencil is done in its proper order and color, coordinated by someone in charge of that group. This stenciling continues for most of the night, depending on the complexity of the design. When the sun rises on Good Friday, it finds a street transformed into splendid designs bursting with colorful radiance.

The Procession

Throughout Friday, the Alfombra lies untouched for all to admire. Police are everywhere to prevent vandalism, but they are unnecessary. The people have remarkable respect for this work of art and for the sacred idea it represents.

By late afternoon, thousands of people line the street for 20 blocks awaiting the start of the procession. Vendors sell snacks, food, and drinks from the side streets, and a general air of festivity prevails.

Gathering crowd

Gathering crowd

Sometime around sunset, the slow, methodical booming of a bass drum is heard, announcing the procession is underway. In the distance, we see the clerical order chosen to lead the parade with banners and carrying a likeness of Jesus on the cross. Then comes San Pedro, San Andres, Santa Maria Magdalena, Santa Ana, and others, and many icons of angels. Somewhere near the end of the procession comes Santa Maria, Madre de Jesucristo, and La Dolorosa herself. It is for her that everybody has been waiting, and it's striking how silent and reverent a throng of thousands can be.

In the pueblos, there are no Alfombras, but the procession is the same with similar figures and in the same order. These smaller ceremonies are led by the local Padre who stops and says the appropriate scriptures at all the 14 Stations of the Cross. In Ojojona, the Stations are marked on wooden plaques on historical buildings, showing the full course of the procession for Semana Santa.

Easter Sunday

On Easter Sunday, many of the devout attend mass. There is an air of reverence and meditation, and people gather in the plaza in front of the local church to visit after services. This is a day for families, even into the night. The Cathedral of St. Michael Archangel is available to the public, Catholic or not, for all who wish to participate.

The Sacrifice

Easter means many things to different people. It is both an excuse to have a barbecue and relax with friends, and a profoundly religious experience. Thankfully, some are keeping traditions alive. Younger generations are learning the reverence and spirituality for which this celebration of crucifixion and resurrection was intended. May we ever keep within our hearts the sacrifice of La Dolorosa.

© 2018 Lew Marcrum