Before Europeans arrived in Central America, ancient Mayan religion guided many areas of the local people’s lives. Festivals, ceremonies, and rituals honoring their many gods and goddesses were held almost daily.
When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they brought with them their own religion: Catholicism, a branch of Christianity. To convert the local people to Catholicism, the colonists forbade traditional religions and destroyed many Mayan temples and documents. However, some Maya secretly continued to observe many of their long-held beliefs and traditions. These practices eventually blended with Christianity to create a new and unique belief system, which is followed by many of the region’s people. Smaller populations of Jews and Muslims also live in Central America.
Largely as a result of this rich religious past, Central Americans celebrate a great many holidays and festivals. In the Christian tradition, Easter and Christmas are the year’s two most important events.All throughout the region, Semana Santa-the week leading up to Easter-is a time for dramatic and emotional festivities. Small villages and large cities alike hold processions in which worshippers carry statues of Jesus, Mary, and other Christian figures through the streets to or from the local church.One of the most beautiful Easter traditions in the region takes place in the city of Antigua, Guatemala. The night before Good Friday (the Friday before Easter), residents spend many hours creating intricate, brightly colored carpets of flower petals and dyed sawdust in the sidewalks and streets. Then, beginning at dawn on Good Friday, large processions pass over these temporary works of art, destroying the display until the next year. On Easter Sunday, many Central Americans attend a morning Mass (Catholic church service). Afterward, they head home to enjoy large feasts with family and friends. This celebration meal showcases many regional specialties, along with holiday treats.