By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
As a predominantly Catholic nation, Mexico has traditionally celebrated Easter Week, known here as Semana Santa, as one of its most important holiday seasons of the year.
Starting on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, nearly every community in the country commemorates the resurrection of Christ 2000 years ago with magnificent rituals and colorful, passionate processions reenacting Jesus’ last days on earth.
In many small towns and neighborhoods, elaborate passion plays are reenacted with intricate portrayals of the last supper, the betrayal of Judas and the procession of the 12 Stations of the Cross.
These ornately staged spectacles usually include highly embellished costumes and props, and often incorporate nearly every family in the community.
In some areas, flagellation and even real crucifixions are included, although authorities have tried to squelch this practice in recent years for obvious reasons.
Far less drastic is the custom of breaking colored eggs filled with confetti over friends and families, a boisterous celebration of the arrival of spring and the salvation of the human race thanks to Christ’s resurrection.
For some people in Mexico, the Easter season is highly personal, a period of individual introspection and self-sacrifice.
Penitents and pilgrimages to the Basilica de Guadalupe and other major shrines are common at this time of year, often on bleeding knees.
Although each town tends to have its own unique way of celebrating the week, the fundamental ceremonies are similar and rooted in the same ancient Christian traditions.
As a rule, Holy Week begins with a ritualistic blessing of the palms as the faithful join in a special mass at their local churches which includes a procession of foliage commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
On the following Wednesday, most churches offer late-afternoon vespers in which the disciples’ abandonment of Christ is recalled and somber warnings are given to those who doubt the Savior’s powers.
Maundy Thursday, known here as Jueves Santo, marks the start of the most important part of the week-long celebration.
Special masses are led by bishops and other clergy in which a sacred oil used in sacraments is consecrated, and many ritual dinners are served on church premises to recall Christ’s tragic last supper.
Some Catholics also mark the day with a visit to seven different churches to recall Christ’s ordeal as he was marched through the streets before his death.
On Good Friday, the passion plays begin with stirring recreations of the trial and crucifixion of Christ.
Often lasting the entire day, these massive theatrical performances can literally involve a cast of hundreds, and culminate with a simulated crucifixion.
Holy Saturday, Sábado Santo, is observed with evening candle masses and sometimes a symbolic burning of paper maché effigies of the Judas Iscariot, devils and skeleton monsters, representing the abolition of evil forces in the universe.
In recent years, however, the burning of these figures has been banned in most municipalities because of the potential dangers and pollution the fires can produce.
The week of observance comes to a fitting climax on Easter Day, when churches across the country are packed.
According to Catholic tenets, all followers are expected to attend mass and receive communion to celebrate this most holy of days.
This is a time for spiritual renewal, born of the hope promised by the resurrection of Jesus Christ himself.
The observance of Holy Week in Mexico dates back to the time of the Conquistadores.
Catholicism was introduced to the country by Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries during the late 1500s.
Because most of the indigenous people that the priests wanted to convert were neither literate nor highly versed in the Spanish language, the Church adopted the practice of incorporating live dramatizations to teach Christian doctrine.
These colorful and reverent displays were very successful in drawing in crowds, and the tradition of the Easter pageant became a fundamental part of Mexican Christian tradition.