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For Costa Ricans, religious celebrations are very important, none more so than Semana Santa or Holy Week, that celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Most locals either get together with their families to participate in religious celebrations, or head out to the beaches for a vacation.
For many Costa Ricans, Semana Santa is a time for reflection and worship with family. The Catholic Church in each town organizes traditional masses and processions which take place on Holy Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Each procession is a dramatic reenactment of Jesus’ journey through Jerusalem to his crucifixion and resurrection.
The participants dress up and act like armies of Roman soldiers and others who took part in Jesus’ journey toward death. Some of the common characters seen in these parades are angels, Mary Magdalene, Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary, the apostles and, of course, Jesus. The actors perform as a promise that they have lived their last year free of sin, following all of the church’s teachings. The procession is a very serious event, and spectators line the streets to mourn and pray.
At family gatherings special meals are prepared. During Holy Week, the tradition is to eat seafood, complying with the Catholic practice of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Delicious dishes such as rice and shrimp, ceviche and fried fish are prepared. Various desserts such as empanadas, pudding and jelly are all made from chiverre, a big squash that looks like a watermelon and is in season during this time. The flesh is cooked with brown sugar blocks.
Most Costa Ricans that are not at home celebrating religious traditions pack up and drive to the beach. The beach towns become overcrowded, and hotels are completely booked months in advance. Travelers on roads leading to the coast can sit in traffic for hours. However, San Jose and other metropolitan areas become deserted as all government institutions, schools and banks close down from Thursday to Sunday, or for the entire week in some cases.
During Holy Week, a Dry Law is in place, meaning that at midnight on Wednesday all bars and liquor stores close. Catholics are not supposed to drink during the mourning of Jesus, not until he has resurrected on Sunday. While the majority of the population is Catholic, many stock up on liquor and beer for the upcoming weekend. At the beach it is possible to find a clandestine bar open, but no alcohol can be officially served anywhere in the city.
A stealthy drink or two aside, many locals hold strongly to religious traditions, and superstitions are alive and well. Many don’t swim in the ocean on Holy Thursday or Friday. People say you can drown because God is angry. Some of the more superstitious believe you will become a fish if you get in the water on Holy Friday. It is also thought that the earth gets hot, causing more earthquakes during this time. On the positive side, it is widely agreed upon that the best sunsets of the year happen during Holy Week.
Whether at home with family, or on vacation at the beach, Costa Ricans share a great respect and passion for the celebration of Easter and Semana Santa.