In Nicaragua, the combination of strong traditions and a celebrative character make the Holy Week celebrations one of the most commemorative events of the year for many Nicaraguans. It is a moment of interesting, massive processions, as well as a period of summer vacations during which diversion and relaxation form the main priorities. There are furthermore even culinary expressions related to this particular period of the year.
During Holy Week, or Semana Santa in Spanish, Christian cultures like the one in Nicaragua commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus. These celebrations take place at the end of March or at the beginning of April. The exact date is set by the Catholic Church and it depends on the phases on the moon. Below follows a description of the celebrations that take place in our country.
Religious traditions are an important aspect of the Nicaraguan culture. During Holy Week, hundreds and hundreds of people participate in processions that are inspired by biblical passages. These processions take place throughout Nicaragua, in all towns and cities, and they are organized by the Catholic Church (in fact, Holy Week is the busiest week of the whole year for the religious community). An overview of the most interesting processions follows below.
The Donkey Procession: the so-called ‘Procesión de la Burrita’ (Donkey Procession in English) takes place in the morning of Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday), one day before the Holy Week. A statue of Jesus, or a real person dressed as him, is set on a donkey. A priest and parishioners walk around in a small procession, together with Jesus’ representation and the donkey, holding palm fronds, accompanied by philharmonic music (in Nicaragua with a band called ‘Chicheros’). This pageant lasts for a couple of hours and ends and starts in the chapel.
This procession is commonly known as ‘Procesión de las Palmas” (Palm Procession), but in Nicaragua it is popularly known as ‘Procesión de la Burrita’ (Donkey Procession) because real donkeys are used in many churches to carry Jesus’ image. It is made in commemoration of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem that was marked by the crowds that were waving palm fronds and welcoming him as the messianic king.
Stations of the Cross: the biblical story about the painful journey traveled by Jesus to his place of death, the scourging, and his crucifixion are referred to by the Latin phrase Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross in English. The fourteen stops made by Jesus on the way to Calvary are all represented during processions that take place during Holy Week.
The Stations of the Cross processions take place every Friday during the Season of Lent (the forty-day period before Easter), culminating on Good Friday. Every Friday morning during the Lent Season, the priests and the parishioners take the statue of Jesus and walk the streets while singing canticles. Along the way, the group will stop for fourteen times, imitating the fourteen Stations of the Cross. These stops will take place at houses in the town or city, where altars for Jesus have been set up. The statue will be placed in this altar, while the people pray, sing, and make requests. People will ask the priest to make a stop at their house in order to show gratefulness or have a chance for divine intervention. Before the processions take place the priest is the one who selects the houses that will function as a station.
The Service of Darkness: during the morning of Good Friday (the same day that the Station of the Cross takes place) many churches organize the procession known as ‘Santo Entierro’ or Service of Darkness or Service of Shadows, symbolizing Jesus’ death and burial. This is a very solemn procession, accompanied by deep sounds. In churches, Jesus’ statue is placed in a casket, which is then carried around on the street followed by silent worshipers who often carry candles or torches. The slow march is accompanied by a drum roll and wind instruments that symbolize funeral songs.
The Reunion: this is a procession full of music and joy. From one church the statue of Jesus start its procession, from another church an statue of Mary does the same thing. Then these two images meet in a certain part of the city. This procession symbolizes Jesus reuniting with Mary after his resurrection. When these two statues meet, parishioners show joy with music and prayers. The two processions will then return to their churches.
This procession will take place on the final day of Holy Week, on Easter day.
The Judea: the ‘Judea’ is another cultural tradition that takes place in many cities throughout the country. The Judea is a theatrical show portraying the life of Jesus until his crucifixion at Calvary. The actors – parishioners who play this role year after year – dress in tailor-made costumes that are representative for the particular period in time. There will be special robes for Jesus and his followers, the Roman soldiers, and the two thieves. The actors go through a lot of effort to play the last moments of Jesus’ life, according to what is written in the Bible.
The Judea is a very serious job for the groups of actors, and they dedicate a fair share of time to practice and to create their clothing. These interpretations take place during the Season of Lent in the whole country, as a prelude of Holy Week.
The Baptism: Protestants do not share the Catholic traditions, but they have their own celebrations during Holy Week. Different branches of Christian Protestants, known in Nicaragua as the Evangelists, group together and transport themselves in bus to bathing areas (at beaches, rivers, lagoons, etc.). The people will then enter the water, pray, and baptize new members of the community.
Morava traditions: in Bluefields and other cities of the Caribbean Coast, a big part of the population practices the Morava religion. Catholics from this region celebrate the Holy Week with similar procession as the rest of the country. However, Moravas have different activities. The most well-known are those of the Holy Sunday or Resurrection Sunday, when people gather in graveyards to assist a mass, and to give maintenance to tombs. This is similar to the Nicaraguan tradition of ‘Dia de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) of November 2nd.
The creativity of the Nicaraguan people combined with their strong religious traditions result in original celebrations that can be very interesting and attractive to watch for tourists and others interested in these celebrations. Right before as well as during Holy Week there are several unique or interesting events that take place in Nicaragua, including dressed-up dogs and processions that take place over water.
Pilgrim Carts: rural, ox-pulled carts will start to arrive two weeks before Holy Week at the Guanacaste junction in the city of Nandaime (in the Granada department). The carts arrive one by one or sometimes in small groups. They come from different places in Nicaragua: Carazo, Masaya, Granada, and Rivas. More than a hundred carts get together at this place. These famous carts are the Pilgrim Carts, ready to start their regular annual journey.
They travel slowly, inspired by a passionate religious devotion. The long line of carts travels four days to reach its destination: the Popoyupa sanctuary, located in San Jorge, Rivas. Here, an open-air mass is held upon arrival. The goal of the pilgrims is to show thankfulness and faith to the image of Nuestro Señor del Rescate de Popoyuapa, whom they acknowledge for previous miracles that happened in their live. This tradition is said to be over 100 years old.
San Lázaro: in the morning of the second last Sunday before the beginning of Holy Week, hundreds of dogs of all breeds, sizes, and colors are brought to the Santa María Magdalena parish church in the Monimbó neighborhood of Masaya. Even more interesting is the fact that all of these dogs come dressed up for this occasion, some wearing only simple decoration, others being very richly dressed. The pet dogs are accompanied by their owners.
This interesting event takes place during the celebration of San Lázaro (Lazarus) in Masaya, and it is one of the oddest events in the country. The owners and their dogs arrive early in the morning at the church. Inside the church, the benches are removed and the floor is covered by sand to make cleaning easier when the big group of dogs leaves. At 10AM a mass is held in honor of Lazarus, and often so many people come that most of the participants have to join the mass from outside the church.
During this traditional and original celebration not only people from Masaya participate, but also people from other parts of Nicaragua. Dog owners arrive with their dressed up pets to show thankfulness or to ask for miracles to happen to their family or friends, and sometimes to ask for miracles for the dogs as well. It is surely interesting to observe the creativity of the participants, and an award ceremony for the best-dressed dog also takes place.
The participation of the dogs is based on biblical passages, referring to the part in which dogs were said to lick the sores of Lazarus.
Stations of the Cross at the islets: another interesting event is organized by the inhabitants of the Chocote community, living among the islets of Granada. Instead of walking down the streets during the Stations of the Cross, the people of this community travel over water and instead of stopping at fourteen houses, the boats dock in front of fourteen small ports at certain pre-selected islets.
This is not an ancient tradition, but it does is a unique way of performing this procession. This started less than 20 years ago when a priest, together with the community, decided to start an improvised version of the processions that would be adapted to the specific conditions of the islets of the Chocote community. Nowadays, this type of celebration has become a regular procession and every year more people participate, including people from other areas and even foreigners. There are dozens of boats and small canoes that accompany the statue of Jesus along its way.
The sawdust carpets: more than a century ago, a family living in the indigenous Sutiava neighborhood in the city of León created a colorful image on the street in front of their house, using sawdust and other materials. This street was traditionally crossed by the Service of Darkness Procession every Holy Friday. The neighbors noticed the image and in the consecutive years they decided to also participate, elaborating other colorful images on the street and thus initiating another creative and unique tradition in Nicaragua. Although the first images where only decorative, the creators later started to shape figures, inspired by biblical passages. These sawdust carpets were therefore later named ‘Passionate Carpets’ (Alfombras Pasionarias).
Every year, many people participate in this old tradition. Nowadays, painted sawdust is used to create the images. On Holy Friday, many people attend to observe the process and the final creation of the sawdust carpets. This tradition has become so well-known that the street of this neighborhood has been called ‘Carpet Street’ (la calle de las alfombras).
Holy Week and Beach Parties
It is surely true that Holy Week is a passionate religious week for Nicaraguans. However, not the whole population partakes in the prayers and traditional processions. In fact, for the major part of the Nicaraguan population this period has a more mundane, less spiritual meaning: it is a time of summer vacation, during which resting, relaxing, having fun, and partying on a large scale (in Nicaragua referred to as ‘bacanalear’) are the most important aspects.
In general, visiting the beach or other bathing sites during Holy Week is a traditional custom. Inhabitants of both rural and urban areas often spend one or more days at the beach, at Lake Nicaragua, around lagoons, or at one of the many different rivers. This is not an illogical place, given the extreme temperatures of the tropical summers during this time of the year.
Cities, most of all at the Pacific region, are fairly empty during the last days of Holy Week. However, towns located along the coast are generally flocked with thousands and thousands of vacationers.
The small town of San Juan del Sur is one of the most popular places for the Nicaraguan youth to party up big time during Holy Week. Thousands of visitors from all over Nicaragua arrive here from the first day of the week. All hotels are full and the local inhabitants also profit by renting out rooms or even their whole house. The largest parties take place from Wednesday on. Along the coast and at other places within the town, bars and restaurants are also filled with national and international visitors. At night (and also during the day) beer, rum, and Latin fiesta dominate the town’s image. During daytime the beach is the stage for contests and sport events.
Although the bacchanalian aspect is of a lesser magnitude, the beaches of Poneloya, Jiquilillo, and Miramar are also important beaches during Holy Week.
Culinary Traditions: special Holy Week plates
Christian rules forbid consuming red meat during Holy Week. Because of this restriction the Nicaraguans once again used their creativity to come up with alternatives that nowadays form part of the gastronomic tradition of the country. Plates that are now typical for this time of the year include exquisite soups, tasty fish plates (white meat), and combinations of tropical fruits, eaten in all towns and cities of Nicaragua.
During this period the popular tamale is consumed frequently, accompanied with cheese. Another typical dish is ‘iguana en pinol’ (a type of lizard with the Nicaraguan ‘pinol’, which is corn based powder). Below we describe recipes of three other traditional Nicaraguan dishes, commonly consumed during Holy Week: Almibar, Sopa de Queso (Cheese Soup) and Gaspar.
2 strands of sweets
12 jocotes (small fruit, also called Red Mombin)
12 ripe mangos
1 large papaya
½ pound of tamarind
2 cinnamon sticks
The jocotes should be cooked separated until the water cooks. The same should be done with the mangos and with the papaya (the papaya should be cut in small, thin slices).The next step is to mix all of the cooked fruit in a clay saucepan. All other ingredients are then added: the groceas (small, acid fruits), the tamarind, and the coconut (cut in slices, similar to the ones of the papaya). The sweet strands (‘atados de dulce’) are a typical Nicaraguan product, found in the market. They should be cut into four pieces and spread out over the fruits in the saucepan. The cinnamon and a little clove should now also be added. Some water should be added and the pot should be closed and left boiling for one hour. After one hour this mixture will have gotten the color of the sweets, and is ready to be eaten. Using the aforementioned ingredients, this will be enough for 15 people.
1 liter of milk
1½ pound of cheese
1 butter bar
1.7 kg of corn dough
1 pound of cream
huacatay (type of herb)
The soup: one liter of water is boiled, together with the onions, paprika, huacatay, and minced tomatoes. Upon boiling, one cup of corn dough that was mixed with a little milk is added. This mixture is kept moving until the ingredients have been mixed completely. Then, 4 eggs are added mixed and added, in addition to half a pound of cream and a little salt.
The scones: the rest of the corn dough is mixed with two eggs, cheese (which should be cut beforehand), and the annatto. Twelve thin, round scones should be made. These are then fried in oil until they are light brown. Before serving them, the scones are passed through the soup. This portion can be served to 4 people.
1 Gaspar fish
3 bitter oranges
12 green jocotes
4 large tomatoes
4 garlic cloves
4 small paprikas
½ pound of rice
The Gaspar fish is boiled in water together with the jocotes, onions, garlic, and sliced paprikas. Once this is cooking, the fish is taken out and cut to thin pieces which are then again added to the same water. The tomatoes are then also sliced and added, together with the price. This is then cooked until the rice is ready.
Note: if a dried Gaspar fish is used, place the fish in water that is changed several times before starting the cooking, in order to desalt the fish.
We would like to thank Wilmor López for facilitating several photos.