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Shedding tears with the Virgin in San Miguel de Allende

sunny 20 °C

Every day we're in Mexico we learn something new and being in San Miguel during Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter) is a revelation. Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows), held each year on the Friday before Good Friday, is unique to San Miguel de Allende and the surrounding small towns. It is also known as Night of the Altars - when churches, businesses and private individuals set up altars to honour the tears of the Virgin. We discovered that the rather homey English name Dolores actually means pain, suffering or grief in Spanish.


We first heard about The Night of the Altars from a Toronto couple we met a couple of weeks ago, and figured it would be a highlight, but we were quite unprepared for the intensity, the solemnity and the festival atmosphere of the evening. There were dozens of altars set up around the centro; some with pieces that have been in their families for hundreds of years. Thousands of people filled the streets, walking from altar to altar. At times the streets were almost silent and at other times it was very collegial - a holy street party.

Our first altar was just around the corner from our apartment - set up in a hotel courtyard. Each altar was so different, but they all had the same elements in place: bitter oranges to symbolize the Virgin's sadness (many pierced with gold flags to symbolize a heart pierced by grief); pots of sprouting wheat to symbolize Eucharistic bread; chamomile flowers whose colours represent humility (green) and beauty (yellow); purple altar cloths (pain and penitence) and white flowers ( The Virgin's purity). This floor was covered with sawdust, which was painted to create a border and design.


Some of the altars were open by late afternoon, but the real event did not start much before 7:00 p.m. When we arrived at the massive street altar on Insurgentes Street, in front of the Santa Ana Church, they were still putting on the finishing touches.
(so much work and this would all be gone the next day).


Buckets of chamomile flowers being brought in to add to the altar.


A woman leaning in to touch the hand of Jesus.


The finished altar, hours later.


One delightful tradition of Viernes de Dolores is the practice of handing out treats - ice cream, popsicles, desserts made of pumpkin or drinks - a symbol of the Virgin's sweet tears. These were generally passed out at the larger altars, and sadly there were a couple of examples of gringo bad behaviour that were cringe-worthy. One woman held up the line while she negotiated the flavour of her popsicle; I watched another woman quietly place her sticky plastic ice cream cup on an ornately carved wooden altar.

Altars lined up on either side of the doorway of a small hotel, with another altar inside the lobby.


The magnificent altar at the Casa de Allende, featuring the Virgin of Hope. Her dresses change each year, as does the backdrop.


One of the most popular altars, with more than 4000 visitors each year. This altar is situated in the entry hall of the private Dobarganes family home, with images dating from the 18th century. We had the opportunity to meet and thank the owner of the home, who watched quietly from the sidelines.


Part of the Dobarganes display


Another altar set up in a private citizen's living room. As is the way with many Mexicans, the owner of this home received our thanks and compliments with a slightly bashful nod.


Many of the city's public fountains were trimmed - some of these altars will remain for the duration of the Easter celebrations.


This small store got into the spirit - a modest altar and a self-serve dish of popsicles sitting to one side.


There were no religious celebrations yesterday, but today it all ramped up again with Palm Sunday. I remember Palm Sunday from my childhood; being as pleased to receive my new Easter outfit as I was my palm cross. It was a modest little Anglican cross - nothing to compare to the extravagant Catholic crosses and floral displays for sale outside every church in San Miguel. Palm Sunday in Mexico is a joyous affair, and the palm crosses match that spirit.

There were two processions this morning to re-enact Palm Sunday events - both with Jesus on a donkey and the 12 apostles; one real, one a statue. We decided to attend the procession with the "real" Jesus, and joined the line of people waiting for it all to begin.


Once the apostles arrived the crowd started to perk up. It must be quite an honour to be chosen to be an apostle; a number of them were in bare feet, which is a significant dedication to the role, considering the roughness of San Miguel streets.


The honour of her father's role was lost on this little girl.


A crowd of altar boys (and girls) began trudging up the street to join the apostles.


Then...the main event. Jesus emerged, riding a donkey out to the front of the crowd. While nobody really thought this was Jesus, his presence was electrifying. And in the spirit of our selfie-age, this congenial Jesus waited patiently while overwhelmed people posed for photos with him.


The priest addressed the crowd for about 10 minutes, and the procession began down the street to the Parroquia in centro.


Meanwhile, the other procession (with the statue of Jesus on a donkey) was making its way to the Parroquia from Juarez Parque. We arrived to find a mob of people making their way to the church steps.


The statue of Jesus entering the Parroquia, with hundreds of followers. Once everyone was inside, a mass would begin.


The band that led the procession to the church, finishing up their act outside the gates.


Whew! Still over a week of celebrations, parades, processions, music and church services to go. We were in San Miguel for Semana Santa last year - leading up to Good Friday, and it was incredibly moving. This year we will be in Guanajuato for Easter - we wanted to see the differences in the two cities. By all accounts, San Miguel tops the charts for Easter celebrations. I don't believe it matters if you are religious, Christian or a non-believer - I would recommend to anyone wanting to visit San Miguel to try and time it with Semana Santa - it is a spectacle in every sense of the word.

I'll be back with one more San Miguel posting in a few days - lots of beautiful things, people and experiences to share.

Posted by millerburr 16:30 Archived in Mexico

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Thank You! for sharing this wonderful experience with us!

by Donna

I read your blog after returning from a Palm Sunday service at our church, complete with palms for everyone. Reading about Semana Santa has only added to my own experience. Thank you for sharing something so inspiring.

by Heather

what incredible photos and story....I'm sorry we left SM before these festivities.

by helene bentley

This blog makes you really feel like you are part of Semana Santa! Thank you so much for sharing. I cringed with you at the ignorance of some tourists!

by Laurence

Lovely photos and, per usual, thoughtful comments. I was in Oaxaca once for Semana Santa. It, too, offered many seasonal decorations and processions, but not as amazing as the photos you've shared with us. Happy Easter, you two!!

by Marilyn Horn

Outstanding Ginny

by annie

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