Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is the week leading up to, but not including, Easter Sunday. The Christian holiday is observed throughout Latin America with Sucre being no exception, though celebrations in Bolivia’s capital are more peaceful and subdued than elsewhere.
Semana Santa begins on Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos), commemorating the last days of Jesus before he was crucified. The day is marked in Sucre by several processions. First is a procession of palm-leaf bearing believers, starting from the Cathedral and circling the Plaza before returning to the Cathedral for a sermon. The second, is a similarly palm-laden procession starting at San Sebastian and ending at the San Francisco Basilica, again followed by a sermon.
The height of celebrations takes place of Holy Thursday when the churches throughout the city open their doors to a stream of devotees who come to light candles, pray and sing hymns. This also provides tourists with the opportunity to explore the city’s many churches without the usual entrance fees. In the Cathedral, the city’s priests gather for mass to renew their own vows and to perform the ritualistic washing of the feet of hundreds of believers. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper is held later in the afternoon.
One of the most important traditions of the week is the accent of Churuquella Hill. Starting at dusk and culminating at midnight, a stream of worshipers make their up the hill towards the statue of Christ the Redeemer at the summit. Along the route, the procession stops to worship at points located along the path representing each of 12 Stations the Cross. At the summit, families gather in tents and around fires. Altars are set up and candles lit to honor the statue of Christ. At 5.30am a priest performs a blessing of everyone still present.
The less pious often spend the evening of Holy Thursday in Sucre’s bars, getting their fill in advance of the ban on alcohol sales which comes into effect at midnight.
On Good Friday, a national holiday, no one works. Buses and taxis still run, however shops and businesses close for the day. Holy communion is observed around 3pm, followed by the procession of the Holy Sepulchre which, starting at 5pm, makes its way from the Temple of San Lázaro to Plaza 25 de Mayo and back. Good Friday also sees an abstinence from meat, though not from all food as it is customary to enjoy a feast consisting of as many as 12 courses. The 12 courses, believed to represent each of the 12 apostles showcase Sucre and Bolivia’s culinary tradition, and customarily consist of:
Easter Saturday is a quiet time of prayer, as the resurrection of Jesus is awaited, with a somber Easter Vigil held at 9.30pm in the evening. Many parishioners buy wax candles to burn during the mass, some inserting five grains of wheat in to the wax to symbolise the five wounds Jesus received as he died on the cross.
The arrival of Easter Sunday marks the end of Semana Santa and is celebrated with a mass at dawn. It also marks the end of the alcohol ban and the abstinence from meat and sees more feasting, with these two items as a prominent feature.
Semana Santa in 2015 runs from Sunday 29th March to Saturday 4th April.