Semana Santa in Santo Domingo de Heredia

Semana Santa re-enacts the last days of Christ up to his resurrection

In Semana Santa (Holy Week) the catholics re-enact the last days of Christ and his resurrection: On Palm Sunday his entrance into Jerusalem (the crowd waves with palm leaves), on Holy Thursday the Last Supper of Christ with his apostles, on Good Friday his arrest, trial, crucification and death, and on Sunday his resurrection.


A countless number of activities in Santo Domingo de Heredia

We came to Costa Rica late on Tuesday of Semana Santa and observed the activities of the rest of this week in Santo Domingo de Heredia, our small hometown for the next four weeks, a little off the beaten tracks. Already on Tuesday we heard the “bumpbump” of the drummers accompanying a procession. The number of processions and services to follow in this week were countless… several on each day.  Impossible to attend them all. We visited only a small part… some ten hours in all. Let me share my impressions with you.


Santa Misa y Procesión solemnel dedicada a Jesú atado a la columna

On Wednesday there is the procession dedicated to Jesus attached to the column (and then Barrabás will be free, not Jesus). Three platforms with figures are waiting in the choir. One of them shows Jesus attached to a column. At six pm, the service starts in the Basilica de Santo Domingo de Guzmán.  Though it is still a working day, the church is almost full. The priest tells the story of Jesús from being captured to resurrection. The drummers and ratcheters enter the church, led buy Roman soldiers. Then the heavy platforms with Jesus at the column leave the church, but this is not easy. The platforms are being carried towards the door, carefully put down to the ground (the leader knocks and all the carriers let the platform down like one hand),  pushed through the door on wheels and finally the platforms  are being balanced down to street level. The procession walks 100m north, some 100m west, 100m south and again some 100m east to get back to the Basilica. We follow them for a while, take a photo of the Basilica and then go home.



I wonder, why there are Romans participating in the processions. They were never in Latin America, right? Yes, right! But this is the enaction of the life of Christ, and the Romans were part of that and hence belong on this stage. Ursula laughs… remember there was the emperor Augustus at that time, she teases me.


Solemne Procesión de la Humillación

On Thursday from 3 to 5 pm the holy procession of the humiliation takes place. Again three platforms are waiting in the Basilica. Jesus now stands on a mountain looking down at three persons.  Perhaps he is now in the garden Getsemane. On the second platform there is Maria in a blue dress. On the third platform I can see  three men, perhaps apostles (I recognize Petrus with the key and a friend tells me later, the others must be Jacobus and Johannes).

Again the Romans, the drummers and the ratcheters enter the church – and leave them.


Again the three platforms are carefully moved out of the church to the street.


I sense the odor of incense. The men carrying the platforms wear white shirts and a blue ribbon that says ” Jesús del Consuelo.” There are many carriers, and they carry the platforms in changing shifts, as they are heavy.



Some of the ratcheters are small girls that fight with their ratchet to produce the “ratch” noise that accompanies the drummers.


It is all hard work. The sun is burning down on the procession. Some spectators give water to the carriers, the drummers or the ratcheters. I follow the procession for two hours, until they go back to the Basilica.


Wrapped up in incense the statues “walk” back to their places in the choir.


In the evening there is the misa vespertina della cena del Señor, hora santa y adoración al Santisimo, Procesión del Silencio and at 3 am the Trisagio y Prcesión de la Penitencia con Jesús del Consuelo. As we feared to walk alone in the night, we did not attend these events.


Catching up with the Trisagio y Procesión de la Penitencia

However, at  5:30 am I left the house trying to catch the end of the night procession at the first daylight. I find the procession in the second large church of Santo Domingo, en “el Rosario”. The cargadores (that carried the platforms) are sitting outside of the church and prayers are entering the church. The platform of Christ stands near the choir. I join the prayers. The church is full. The prayers are standing. This service finishes soon, and many people are leaving saying, “necessitamos un descanso” (we need a rest). I can understand that, they have been up from 3am to follow the Trisagio service and the procession. And now it is after six in the morning. The children that had operated the rattle are sitting in the cemetery. This has been a long day for them. They have taken off their white and red gowns and hold them in their hands.

The celebrations now continue seamlessly after the night procession. The cargadores enter the church. Today they are wearing vests of bordeaux red color with a foto of Jesús on their backs. They surround Jesus in the garden and stand still. Someone attaches the cross to Jesus making him ready for his march to Golgatha.


A young priest starts to plea for the ill… one after the other, and always, he repeats: “Nada es imposible”. People are mourning and some are crying. One lady is so overwhelmed that she has to leave the church temporarily. The priest then asks all to embrace their neighbors. Some of the cargadores come to the back of the church to embrace their parents and brides. In the end we all take our hands and pray together. To complete the service, the priest tells us the next events… the activities will last all day again. The service for the ill ends at about eight am. Some of the participants have been up since 3 am.


Bendición del Fuego on Saturday evening

On Saturday evening we attend the service “Bendición del Fuego”. The theme is: The Light is back. The believers enter the church at 8pm with candles in their hands. When we arrive, they are already in the church. It is full, not one seat left. People are even standing. Aoother procession is just coming back from their turn around the city and is entering the church under the bumpbump of the drummers, the ratchratch of the ratcheteers and the sounds of the brass musicians, enwrapped in a cloud of scenting  incense.

When all the platforms with Christ and his environment are back near the choir, the service starts. The priest tells stories from the Old Testament, Genesis, Abraham and Izaak, Moises, Jesaia, Ezekiel and from the New Testament (the grave is empty on Easter morning’ and a man dressed in white tells Maria Magdalena and two other women not to be afraid, because her son has resurrected). For one topic there is always a sermon, a lection and a prayer (“oremos”). A professional voice is singing beautifully. The believers are listening, are clapping their hands, are praying, and are also looking after their children – with love and care – many of them have brought their favorite plush animals with them. It is all natural and chlidren belong to that. A baby is baptized and also an adult after having confirmed his “yo creo”. Later the lights were switched on, to indicate that Christ has resurrected. In the prayers, people hold their hands up.With the holy communion the service ends. Charo y Jesús have come to meet us and take us back home at 11pm.


Easter service at 10 am on Sunday morning

On Sunday we go back to the Basilica with Charo and Jesús at 10 am. Another processiom has just returned and the statues on their platforms are moving into the Basilica.

The Basilica is again full. Not one seat is free. Families have come with their children and plush animals, mothers in hot pants and sleeveless tops, young couples – the girls in short sleeveless dresses – it seems to be normal to come to the church and celebrate another service with fervor. Singing, lections, prayers, preaching. The songs are vivid and all believers sing, move their bodies with the beat of the music, clap their hands, hold their hands up to demonstrate their faith in God. They sing “resucitó”, “ame”, “gloria”. The service ends with the sacrament – there are four long queues that patiently wait for their small piece of holy bread. One and a half hours later, the priest announces more processions… how many more will take place? I am losing track of them.

While we walk back home, Ursula and I admire the fervor and enthusiasm that the catholics show here in Costa Rica to celebrate Semana Santa and re-enact the last days and the resurrection of Christ. But, we also feel fear. Can such a mass of people not be seduced… by wrong leaders and by the wrong messages? This is just a short thought.


 Nothing  is impossible, this is the message of hope that I take with me

We both are protestants brought up in Switzerland. We do not take all the events of the Semana Santa by the word, but like beautiful symbols. We enjoyed the atmosphere of solemnity, fervour and peace of the celebrations we attended. “Nothing is impossible” or “nada es imposible” means hope for me… hope that there will always be men and women that despite the recent attacks and the wars around us keep up their vision of peace and are willing to act. We do hope that nothing is impossible and that we will find peace again. Or, as the NZZ of March 27th puts it: “Death does not have the last word, but the last but one word”. Shall all be possible… and nothing impossible.


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