What's Tony Thinking

The Weekend Here


Yesterday, March 23, was “Viernes de Dolores,” or the Friday of Sorrows here in San Miguel. It is a day, one week before Good Friday, devoted to Mary and her sorrow as Holy Week approaches. Throughout town there are altars to the Virgin. In the evening people visit these altars, some of which are created at fountains around town, many of which are in homes and some in public buildings. People line up to go in and pay their respects. Despite the “Friday of Sorrows” designation, the mood on the street last evening was buoyant and festive. Religious devotion and partying don’t seem to be mutually exclusive here.

These altars, like many festival creations in San Miguel, are here today and gone tomorrow. Their temporary nature doesn’t mean they aren’t elaborate or that those who create them haven’t spent a lot of time on it. Quite the contrary. They are beautiful and detailed. Herbs like camomile and sage often surround the altar itself or a pathway to it, which means the visual is augmented by lovely but subtle fragrances. There’s music too, usually recorded. Frequently, visitors are given some kind of food or beverage, maybe a coconut flavored drink, a cup of frozen fruit, nuts or fruit.

Last weekend there was a procession which brought an especially venerated effigy of Jesus from an outlying town into San Miguel. For the final five hundred yards of the procession the street was prepared with colorful mosaics made of wood chips as a central pathway while the rest of the cobblestone street was covered in clumps of fresh camomile, sage, mint, and thyme. With hundreds of people walking on this pathway, it more or less disappeared. The next day it’s all is gone, bagged and carried away.

Such elaborate displays for such a brief time.

To me the temporary nature emphasizes it’s character as an offering to God. Heartfelt, beautiful, but here today, gone tomorrow. Meant for God, or one or another saint, but temporary. An outpouring, an offering, lifted up to vanish. Let go, not held, grasped or protected.


Tomorrow there will be two processions for Palm Sunday, each with a man on a donkey. Why two? Don’t know. There are fifteen major churches in town. Each one has its own events and processions. Maybe they compete with one another? Churches have been known to do that.

As I mentioned last week, being here in San Miguel gives me a real feel for the original Holy Week in Jerusalem where 200,00 pilgrims would crowd into that city. Lots of visitors here in San Miguel for Semana Santa, Holy Week. Not anything I’ve experienced before, certainly not in Seattle, the public events and crowds. But, as I say, it does give you a feel for the Holy Week story we read and tell this week.

Another thing it makes you think about is all the conflict and consternation around religious displays, manager scenes and the like, in the States. Does all this in San Miguel add up to some kind of melding of church and state? Do people of other faiths or no religious faith here feel oppressed or infringed upon by all this? It’s impossible to imagine it being prohibited in the name of separation of church and state, which does exist in Mexico. In fact, Catholic churches cannot own property. They only own the inside of the churches. Not sure how building maintenance is handled?

Perhaps if some public expressions of religious faith, and not only Christian ones, had been more readily tolerated in the States, e.g. not being offended if someone says “Merry Christmas,” there wouldn’t be the now more militant and ┬áproblematic “Christian Nationalism”? Hard to say. It does seem clear that people here feel comfortable mixing and matching, combining elements of the indigenous cultures, Aztec, Christian and the secular without getting too uptight about it. At least, it appears that way to this gringo.

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