Celebrating Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Guatemala

Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a week-long celebration leading up to Easter Sunday. From baking large amounts of bread to decorating streets with sawdust “carpets”, you won’t find another country that celebrates Semana Santa quite like Guatemala does. Here are a few of their traditions:

Baking bread

During Semana Santa, families get together and make large amounts of ‘pan de yemas’ (egg yolk bread), a type of sweet bread. The tradition of making bread during this time is said to originate from a bible story in which Jesus feeds the masses with two loaves of bread and two fish. Each family not only makes enough bread for themselves, but also to share with their wider circle of relatives, friends and neighbors. It is a laborious task but when the whole family is involved many hands make for light work! Many homes do not have an oven large enough for making the bread, so they go to a local bakery and pay to use the oven. In smaller towns where there is no bakery, one family will rent out their oven to fellow community members. It is an opportunity to share what you have with others. Watch the bread making process below:

Religious processions

Religious processions can be observed in various places around Guatemala in the lead up to Easter Sunday. However, the most elaborate processions take place in Antigua, drawing thousands of locals and tourists to the city. The large floats are carried throughout the cobblestone streets and depending on the religious holiday, depict different religious themes.For example, on Good Friday they illustrate the Way of the Cross. Some of the floats are so long (and heavy) that they require 80 men to carry them! 

In smaller towns in Guatemala, you will find ‘los arcos’ (arches). These arches are placed on street corners for the religious processions to walk under and are adorned with flowers, fruit, and ‘corozo’ - an aromatic plant that is found in tropical forests in Central and South America. After the processions are over, the fruit is taken down and donated to people in need.


One of the most beautiful Easter traditions is the creation of ‘alfombras’ (rugs) but you won’t find these in the family living room! They are made from sawdust, flowers, fruit, palm leaves, and paper, and are laid out in the streets. People work from around 1am to 5am using stencils to create the intricate designs. The sawdust has to be constantly sprayed with water to ensure it doesn’t fly away! The next day, they are walked over by religious processions. According to the bible, on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on his donkey, the people laid out palm branches in his path as a sign of respect. This is where the tradition of alfombras originates. Today, they are created to show their gratitude towards Jesus and to seek penance for their sins.  Alfombras can also be seen in other parts of Latin America, Mexico, Spain, and even in places like Corpus Christi, Texas. 

Colorful alfombras in Guatemala
Colorful alfombras in Guatemala

Traditional food

In the weeks leading up to and during Semana Santa, towns will hold ‘ferias’ (fairs), where you will find a number of stalls selling various types of food such as enchiladas, tostadas, fried or dried fish, chiles rellenos, and fried plantains - just to name a few! Two of the most popular foods to make and eat during this time are ‘garbanzos dulces’ (sweet chickpeas), and ‘curtidos’ (pickled vegetables) which are often served with fish on Good Friday. Another traditional dish is ‘ayote en dulce’, a dessert consisting of pumpkin and panela. Semana Santa is the best time to sample the best cuisine that Guatemala has to offer! 

Garbanzos dulces are a popular dessert during Semana Santa | Photo: Luis Figueroa

How the Mil Milagros team celebrates

We asked a few of the Mil Milagros Community Coordinators how they like to celebrate Holy Week.

Adriana, Community Coordinator

My favorite day is Holy Thursday because this is when we are all together as a family. We prepare bread and chocolate to share with our relatives and the godparents of our children. At night we go to mass and commemorate the last supper Jesus had with his disciples. On Friday, we attend the processions in our community. 

Cristy, Program Director
On Holy Thursday we eat bread and chocolate for breakfast and in the afternoon we go to see the processions in our community.

Telma, Community Coordinator
What I love about Semana Santa is when as a family, we bring firewood and flour to a local woman who makes bread for us. My favorite dish to prepare is sweet mangos with plantains.

Shirley, Community Coordinator
My favorite tradition is preparing different types of fruit in honey such as plantains, papaya, coconut, peaches, chilacayote (a type of pumpkin).

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