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Semana Santa Easter Traditions

The week leading up to Easter Sunday, known as Semana Santa in Costa Rica, is one of the country’s most important religious holidays. Many residents have the entire week off from work, schools are closed, and Thursday and Friday are government mandated holidays so that families may spend time together. This year, Holy Week falls from April 18-24, and no matter how you spend the holiday, you’re sure to witness a variety of religious traditions – and an unforgettable aspect of Costa Rican culture.

More than 75% of the country is Catholic, and another 16% are Protestant Christians. For many, Holy Week is a time of worship, reflection and, finally, celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Catholics are expected to relax, avoiding labor during this week. Therefore, Easter Week preparations begin well in advance, as families make special dishes and ready their homes for the coming celebrations. Church members run dry rehearsals of religious parades, and help polish statues (effigies) that will play an important role in the processions.

Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are Holy Week’s most important days, and every town’s Catholic Church organizes festivities on these holidays. Dramatic religious parades wind through every town, reenacting Jesus’ journey through Jerusalem, the crucifixion, and His eventual resurrection. Parade participants dress up to perform key roles, including Roman soldiers, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Saint Joseph. Two of the most famous processions take place in Tres Rios de Cartago, where live actors are used in place of effigies, and in San Joaquin de Flores. Be forewarned that these parades are somber and the details can be quite gruesome – think bleeding statues, their faces twisted in pain – and are meant to evoke strong emotions in attendees.

Conservative Catholics refrain from eating meat during Lent (the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter), so traditional Holy Week cuisine revolves around seafood. Chiverre squash also plays a prominent role in the week’s gastronomic offerings, appearing as sweet jelly, filling for turnovers, and pudding. Other specialties vary by regions; for example, families in Guanacaste spend weeks gathering wild mangos for marmalade and other sweet treats.

Those who don’t participate in religious celebrations often take the week to travel, usually to the beach. Holy Week sees the country’s busiest traffic and most crowded beaches, and tourists will find that most hotels are booked months in advance. Nearly every shop shuts down from Holy Thursday to the following Monday, so it's a good idea to stock up on goods before then, and avoid traveling as several transportation companies close completely or offer limited service. Unfortunately for party-hearty beachgoers, Costa Rica’s Dry Law is also in place during this time, and all liquor sales are illegal between Holy Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Many choose to stock up on alcohol during the previous weekend, and the occasional bar will be open at the beach.

Even if you’re not Catholic, try to catch a Holy Week parade, and don’t forget to pick up a chiverre empanada!

Semana Santa Easter Traditions in Pictures

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