Guatemala: Maximón and Other Holy Week Traditions

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

When a very religious culture becomes dominated by yet another deeply religious people, often the religion of the conqueror is imposed on the conquered. However, cultures have always found ways to offer resistance; in Guatemala somehow the Catholic religion has been “hacked”  to incorporate indigenous peoples’ gods, goddesses, rites and ceremonies while integrating elements of Catholicism.

Maximón is the best example of such transmutation, as explained by the photoblog Mi Mundo:

Aq’ab’al Audelino Sajvín explains: “In oral tradition, Maximón represents Kaji’ Imox, the last ruler of the Maya Kaqchikel people [during the Spanish conquest], who was tied, tortured and murdered. This entire episode is known as Xkiyüt Xkixïm/Ximon, which is surely why they call him Maximón: ma refers to a male person in the Maya Kaqchikel language, and ximón means he who is tied up.” According to Aq’ab’al Audelino Sajvín the syncretism between Maximón and Saint Simon began when “the Christian [conquistadores] realized they could not eradicate the image of the great protector of the people. Hence, they began to promote the idea of Maximón as being the same as Saint Simon, often related with Saint Jude, a treacherous figure.”

Picture under a Creative Commons attribution license by Gustavo Jerónimo.

Picture under a Creative Commons attribution license by Gustavo Jerónimo.

The different and very special elements of religion in Guatemala make the Holy Week (in Spanish, ‘Semana Santa’) quite a unique experience, including characters like the “Cucuruchos“, communities gathering to create holy week carpets made of flowers, and devoted men and women carrying on their shoulders colonial images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary while wearing traditional outfits under the sun, in spite of the hot summer.

Holy Week is a family celebration where everyone is invited to participate, as the photo blog describes:

As I’ve mentioned before, the making of carpets from sawdust, pine-needles, flowers, vegetables is a community-forming tradition. People get together by block or near-by neighbors to create the carpets on which the processions will pass by. Sometimes the making of the carpets is done at night, all night so they are ready for next day’s procession. The colorful processional carpet elaboration process involves the whole family, close friends, the neighborhood and the entire community. It does not matter if it’s just grandma throwing some corozo (corozo palms) and dried purple flowers to elaborate a humble alfombra in front of her home or it is a team of members of the cuadra (the block), or if a son lends a hand to a dad to put the final touches on the brightly-colored sawdust carpet, the devotion and the do-good spirit are present everywhere you look.

Holy week carpet making. Image by Rudy Girón (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Holy week carpet making. Image by Rudy Girón (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Antologia del Desengaño [es] explains how Holy Week is celebrated in a very different way in Santiago Atitlán:

En Santiago Atitlán, el Viernes Santo por la tarde, al igual que en el resto católico del país, da inicio la representatividad de la muerte de Jesucristo, pero a diferencia del mundo ladino, la celebración no tiene connotaciones ominosas. Al interior de la iglesia hay un tumulto de gente que participa en la preparación del cortejo procesional, con tambores y chirimillas, no hay pesadumbre; hay respeto al ceremonial, pero no hay tristeza, ni acongojamiento en el rostro y actitud de la gente .

In Santiago Atitlán, during Good Friday afternoon, people celebrate the representation of Jesus Christ's death, but unlike the non indigenous World, it lacks the ominous character. Inside the church there is a crowd participating in the procession with trombones and “chirimias“, there is no sorrow, only respect for the ceremony, and the faces and attitudes of people attending do not denote suffering or sadness.

Holy Week in Guatemala is rich with colors, scents and devotion. It is a cultural, spiritual and gastronomic experience for locals and visitors in this diverse country with more than twenty four languages and different indigenous groups. The best of different worlds come together to enjoy and find beauty in mixing, rather than imposing, their culture.

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.