The Pope, The Virgin and the Flowers – Holy Days in Guanajuato
Sitting on my balcony at three in the afternoon on Holy Friday, I am enjoying something which can be hard to come by in Mexico – silence. This respite from the sounds of city life is due to the fact that almost everyone is in church, watching or participating in a reenactment of the crucifixion. This is the day, bigger even than Easter.
But we’ve had a lot of notable days in the past few weeks.
Two weeks ago, Pope Benedict came – a big deal for my small city. People responded in different ways. Guanajuato is said to be the most Catholic city in Mexico, and for many here it was a monumental event. Yellow and white Vatican flags flew from balconies all over town. Banners with various slogans – Bienvenido Benedicto XVI, Welcome Holy Father and Friend, Vilcomen, You are St Peter, Guanajuato Receives You With Open Arms - hung throughout the city. Faithful Catholics lined up to cheer him, “Benedicto, hermano, ya eres Mexicano!” Not being Catholic, this all seemed a little strange, but I believe the cheering throngs to be genuine in their faith.
Others viewed the visit as money-making opportunity. People with homes along the Papal route rented space on their balconies. Souvenirs were made and sold. A man with a life-sized, cut out of the Pope charged people ten pesos for the photo opportunity. I don’t do photos, but found myself tempted by the absurdity of the situation.
After the faithful and the capitalists came the third group – those of us who just wanted to ride out the storm with as little chaos as possible. Only two roads reach the center of Guanajuato and both were closed for several days for security purposes. This meant that goods which enter the city by vehicle couldn’t arrive. Preparing for the Pope was a lot like preparing for a blizzard:
- Make sure you have enough food, propane and drinking water. Delivery trucks will not be able to enter the city.
- Carry ID (showing your address) at all times.
- ATMs will probably get emptied out by the tourists coming in. Be sure you have enough cash on hand.
When the big night arrived, I stayed in and watched the festivities on TV. It was a chance to learn some new Spanish vocabulary- useful words like Pope-mobile (Papa-movíl), and to enjoy seeing places I regularly traverse on television. The next day he held a mass with half a million people in attendance (a massive mass!). Then it was suddenly over and everything went back to normal.
Sandwiched between Holy Week and the Pope’s visit are two of the days I like best in Guanajuato: Dia de las Flores (Day of the Flowers) celebrated on Thursday, and Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows). Dedicating the sixth Friday of Lent to the sorrowful Virgin is a tradition that originated in Germany in the 1400′s. The Virgin of Sorrows is the Virgin Mary in her grief and suffering. She is considered the patron saint of Guanajuato, perhaps because the city was founded on mining and people relate to the sorrow of losing a loved one.
Elaborate altars to the Virgin appear all over the city. They contain many elements- a picture of the Virgin, candles, purple to represent the pain of Calvary and white representing the purity of the Virgin. Chamomile, wheat, oranges and fennel are also used, each assigned a specific meaning. People need flowers to decorate their altars and the day before Viernes de Dolores has now become a festival in itself.
The streets are jammed with vendors selling flowers and decorated eggs, hollowed out and full of confetti. Colorful, meaningful and local- these two days encompass everything a visitor could hope to see in a traditional celebration.
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