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Guatemala is known the world over for its colorful processions during Cuaresma or the Lenten season leading up to Easter Sunday. Residents and tourists flock to Antigua and Guatemala City to see the weekly church visits called velaciones, the stunning flower arrangements and the brightly colored sawdust designs, as well as the extraordinary displays of devoutness on Good Friday.
Yet the most unusual of these Guatemalan religious celebrations is found in Santiago Atitlán, an indigenous village on the shores of oft-visited Lake Atitlán. In the shadows of three towering volcanoes, in a large whitewashed courtyard in front of a Catholic Church dating back to the 1500’s, Holy Week sees an impressive demonstration of the unique blend of Mayan and Catholic religious traditions known as syncretism, a mixture of different religions and cultures.
That combination is seen daily inside the Catholic Church of Santiago, where statues of saints line the walls dressed in colorful garments reminiscent of the trajes or traditional costumes worn by the area’s indigenous Maya population.
During Holy Week, this fusion of Maya and Catholic traditions becomes even stronger, as townsfolk prepare the statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus for their ceremonial processions that take place on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.
“Jesus in the Mayan religion is very special,” said Dolores Ratzan Pablo, a trilingual Maya T’zutujil woman active in the community who has also lived in the United States.
“The Mayans really take good care of (Jesus),” Ratzan told NBC Latino. She described how the caretakers of the ancient and valued statue of Christ meticulously change his clothing and the sheets in which he is wrapped while hanging on the Cross.
“When they change the sheets, they wash them and they use that water as holy water.” According to the Maya way of thinking, Jesus is associated with the corn god.
“We save a piece of the Corn and then we plant it and then it grows again…and that is like Jesus and his resurrection,” affirms Ratzan, who is known internationally as an expert guide to tourists visiting this lakeside community.
The Maya of Santiago believe that when a person dies and is buried, he/she is transformed into flowers.
When the statue of Jesus is taken down from the cross on Good Friday, it will be installed inside an elaborate six-foot long casket of glass and metal and paraded around the village. His head will be decorated not with a crown of thorns, but with one of colorful flowers.
Good Friday is the most solemn moment of days of intense sacred ritual and the statue of Christ is brought down the pyramid-like stairs of the centuries-old Church of Santiago Apostol. It is carried on the shoulders of dozens of Atiteco men dressed in traditional costume— another extraordinary manifestation of the amalgamation of Maya and Catholic traditions taking place.
At almost the same time, the statue of the indigenous Maya demi-god Maximon is carried on the shoulders of a member of his cofradía, or brotherhood. This person, known as the telinel, carries the revered statue of the Mayan deity Maximon from his chapel in the courtyard below the Catholic Church and follows the statue of Jesus with almost dance-like movements. The telinel serves as Maximon’s symbolic horse.
Santiago Atitlán is one of the places in Guatemala where the devotion to what some call “the pagan saint” Maximon is strongest. This curious four-foot high figure, made of wood and dressed in old-timey Western-style clothing with flowing indigenous scarves, wears a black hat and often sports a cigar in his mouth.
Maximon is known variously as a Mayan version of St. Simon, a Satanic figure, a representation of Judas or a link to the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado. Other analysts say he is a blend of the Mayan Earth Lord Mam and the apostle Simon Peter, Jesus’ first disciple.
Throughout the year, Maximon’s devotees, from Santiago and from throughout Guatemala and even from the United States, come to make offerings and ask favors to this statue also known as Rilaj Mam, meaning “Holy Grandfather” or “Holy Boy” in the local T’zutujil Mayan language.
To some Western tourists’ eyes, viewing the simultaneous parading of the statues of Maximon and Jesus Christ on Good Friday may seem like a demonstration of “dueling deities.”
But Dolores Ratzan says that is not the case at all.
“No, they are not competing,” she explained. “They go together because the celebration of Jesus to the Mayans represents the corn, like Jesus’ resurrection, and then Maximon is like the Mayan protector (with whom) my ancestors left their knowledge, their medicine and their prayers ... So the Maximon is the ‘Holy Grandfather’ who follows Jesus, like father and son… It's not competing—they are working together.”
However, the administrator of the Catholic Church of Santiago, 38 year-old Felipe Coche, insists that the two devotions are completely different, although there may be some townspeople who pay homage to both Catholic traditions and to Maximon.
“The Mayan tradition of Maximon has nothing to do with the Catholic Church,” he said. “The Church completely rejects this.”
Because Easter celebrations often coincide with the celebration of the Mayan New Year and the coming of the spring rains, there is one other aspect of the Lenten rituals in Santiago that dates back to pre-Colombian times. At the beginning of Holy Week, the men of Santiago begin a long trek of 24 hours from their village to the Pacific coast and back, returning with boxes and baskets of colorful tropical fruits like coconuts, mangoes and plantains to decorate their village.
“This is a big sacrifice that the men of Santiago make,” said Dolores Ratzan, who will be among the women welcoming the men back on Holy Wednesday.
These rich centuries-old Mayan traditions continued by the followers of the cult of Maximon blend easily with the vibrant Catholic Lenten and Easter celebrations, making Easter in this Mayan community on the southwest shores of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan an unforgettable experience.