News & Views

Holidays Around the World: Semana Santa

Tamales are traditionally eaten when families gather together to celebrate Semana Santa.

As part of HIAS PA’s “Holidays Around the World” series, we are exploring holidays which are celebrated widely around the world, but which might not be as well-known in the United States. This month, Natali, a HIAS PA client, is here to teach us about how her family celebrates Semana Santa, also known as Holy Week, in El Salvador and in the US.

What is Semana Santa, or Holy Week?

Semana Santa, also known as Holy Week, which culminates in Easter, is an important Catholic holiday that is celebrated worldwide, especially in predominantly Catholic countries such as El Salvador, Spain, Colombia, Mexico, and more. Semana Santa takes place over the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before Easter. 

How do you celebrate Semana Santa?

During Holy Week, families gather together for special meals, go to church for Easter vigils and mass, and create spectacular alfombras, or rug-like displays made with flowers, in the street. There are parades where we reenact Jesus on the cross and the revival of Christ. We also attend the Vigilia Pascual, or the “Easter Vigil”, at dawn, led by the priest in our local Catholic church. Semana Santa is about more than just loving Christ–it is about feeling the spirit in your heart and giving thanks for our salvation.

During Semana Santa, we eat jocotes con miel (fruits with honey), mangos con miel, achate or calabaza con dulce de atado (candied squash), and tamales pisques, which are tamales with beans; some contain chiles de árbol, but my family prefers tamales with elote, or corn.

In my family, my grandmother customarily makes atol de elote, a sweet corn drink that is very popular in El Salvador. She also prepares tamales pisques–one of my favorite memories is of being with my grandmother as she prepared her tamales during one Semana Santa when it was only us living together, since the rest of my family had already immigrated to the United States.

The Easter procession is recreated during Semana Santa.

Jocotes are fruits from the cashew tree. El Salvadorans typically eat jocotes con miel, fruits with honey, during their Holy Week celebrations.

How do people celebrate in the US?

We don’t usually celebrate Semana Santa in the United States like we do in El Salvador because we’re very far from our family, but we always make atol de elote and buy or make food to celebrate. This is my favorite part of the holiday – being together as a family as we eat and enjoy the time of rest.

An alfombra is a rug which is created in the street using flowers during Semana Santa.

We are grateful to Natali for sharing about Semana Santa! Look out for next month’s “Holidays Around the World” and learn more about the holidays that hold great importance to the immigrants we serve.

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