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Now That the Holidays are Gone; Recapping Semana Santa
Now That the Holidays are Gone
Recapping Semana Santa

by Joseph Toone

Last Spring I was in the state of Chiapas enjoying the indigenous traditions. There, when on a tour of a church, the guide pointed to a man at Jesus’ Crucifixion beside Mary (Jesus’ mom, as there are lots of other Marys,) stating he was Jesus’ father, St. Joseph. I winced, knowing St. Joseph wasn’t there, that Joseph was Jesus’ step-father and that the lad was actually Jesus’ apparent favorite apostle, St. John. Keeping my thoughts to myself (snitches get stitches) the situation made me realize how complicated it can be to keep straight the cast of characters in San Miguel de Allende’s Semana Santa (Holy Week before Easter). These folks appeared last week in countless processions, plays and displays. Now that the holidays are gone here is rundown on who was who.

The star is obviously Jesus, typically seen alongside his cumbersome cross. Other times he is seen bent over a column (an image aptly named Senor of the Column) being whipped in his very own procession from Atotonilco two weeks before Easter. This image receives special attention for his historical role in having ended a Colonial era plague.

But he’s not the only plague person. Often in Holy Week processions there is man whose hair and costume, not to mention pet, indicate another era. He stands lifting his skirt to show a scar on his leg while beside him is a dog carrying bread. That is St. Roque (Roche, Rocco, Rock). He is showing us he has the plague and, for that, he was kicked out of Rome. He survived living in the wild via a dog that brings bread daily and licks his wound until the plague goes away. This makes St. Roque patron of both plagues and dogs.

Plagues were mysterious and frequent for centuries and invoking the help of Señor of Column or St. Roque helped give an approach to combat the randomness of plagues.  Rather than a society depressed and resigned to repeated ravages of plagues, these lads gave folks positive steps to regain control over their environment. The display Señor of Column and St. Roque this time of year is in appreciation for their early efforts.

There were apostles around town during the week past week. One was Judas Iscariot, the apostle that turns Jesus in for 30 pieces of silver. He normally is shown hanging from a tree with said silver as he committed suicide Holy Week.

The other apostle is the teacher’s pet, St. John. St. John, in art, is the apostle without a beard and with a certain effeminate look, including long hair. Often he is mistaken for St. Mary Magdalene and is physically closest to Jesus. One of Jesus’ last actions was to give his mother, Mary, to the care of St. John as her new son.

At the procession for Jesus’ burial was Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, whom carry a document where Pontius Pilate authorizes them to take Christ down from the cross and bury him with an abundance of the customary embalming spices.  They are surrounded by Roman soldiers as Pontius Pilate ordered to insure Jesus’ body does not get stolen.

Then there were Jesus’ neighbors on the cross, Gestas and St. Dimas. Gestas, the bad thief, is shown as ugly and evil and was modeled after a local butcher. The kinder lad is St. Dimas, the good thief, and only person we know for sure is in Heaven as Jesus tells him he’ll catch up with him later that day there. Often the cross bar of St. Dimas points up to show his ascent to Heaven while Gestas’ cross points down.

Other men in the procession were gladiators, as Jesus was a prisoner.

For the gals, Mary, his mother is the lead female part and was identified by her trademark blue and purple clothing (the colors of mourning). Notably absent was her husband, St. Joseph, her parents (St. Ana and St. Joachim) and her cousin, St. Elizabeth (mother of the also missing St. John the Baptist). For this reason they are all believed to have pre-deceased Jesus.

Present was Mary’s half-sister, Mary of Clopas. Mary’s mother, St. Ana, is believed to have been married thrice giving birth to a baby girl named Mary each time. Apparently St. Ana wasn’t horribly creative on the baby-naming front, but there are other Marys too.

St. Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ gal pal and many believe she was his amour. For centuries the Church promoted her as a prostitute though today it is acknowledged she was simply a wealthy woman from the area called Magdala who followed Jesus and his teachings. Such is normally her right alongside the Virgin Mary and St. John.

There was also St. Martha, St. Lazarus’ and St. Mary’s sister. Confused? It's hard not to be. The three siblings were Jesus’ pals for many years. Except for Apostles and St. Mary Magdalene, he spent most of his time with them.

Then there were the nameless and genderless angels. Normally they look like highly effeminate men and are present to aid the Virgin Mary in her agony of losing Jesus.

Now for those of you who know your bible these featured folks are often nameless much less with back stories. All this storytelling was an attempt to make the characters more relatable to the indigenous. As a conquered people they didn’t feel able to talk to Jesus directly (that is a Protestant concept that came later) but the Virgin Mary, and these Saints, were all humans just like them, and us. Thus the Virgin Mary was more accessible for the asking of favors. Plus, a lad has to do what his Mom asks of him. (You can’t be the Son of God, without a mother.)

Now that you've been properly introduced your next Semana Santa in SMA will be more meaningful and enjoyable. Knowing the local traditions provides the flavor.

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Joseph Toone is Amazon's bestselling author of the San Miguel de Allende Secrets series of books and TripAdvisor's best rated historical walking tour guide. For more information contact toone.joseph@yahoo.com or visit History and Culture Walking Tours or JosephTooneTours.com, also on FaceBook.

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