San Miguel is a great place for a religion junkie, a category to which I definitely belong. By all accounts, this town has even more fiestas and religious holidays than most places in Mexico. This week, Semana Santa, is peak season, but there’s a lot to celebrate even before Holy Week gets going.

Several weeks ago, we saw a small group of pilgrims going around our colonia with a cross and prayerbooks, stopping here and there where people had set up little altars. “They’re Stations of the Cross,” Joy said. “What holiday do they do the Stations of the Cross, again?”

“Um, I thought it was Good Friday,” I said. “But that’s not for weeks. Lent just started.” But there was no question that the altars were Stations of the Cross, and that obscure though the ritual might be to us, it was important for at least a small group (mostly elderly women—the core of church life everywhere, it seems).

Another recent Sunday was dedicated to bringing three-year-olds to church for a special ceremony. This is a local practice, celebrated almost nowhere else in Mexico, or maybe nowhere else in Mexico, period. Mexicans are the least church-going people in Latin America, but this event seemed to attract crowds, all very dressed up, with the honored three-year-olds in fancy white clothes like baptismal dresses. We did not bring our three-year-old, though I would have liked to attend the service just to see what they did.

The Sunday before Palm Sunday, those willing to get up early enough (i.e., not us) could watch Jesus’ entry into the city after a six-hour walk from the church in Atotonilco. It’s called “Lord of the Column,” marking the station where Jesus pauses to rest on a column. Yes, more stations of the cross; if Mexico had its way, poor Jesus would have been on his final walk for well over a month.  But I like the way the rituals here give believers a good long time to concentrate on the key event of their religion.  There is a political echo in this walk, also, since in much more recent years, Father Miguel Hidalgo led a march from Atotonilco to San Miguel (and beyond), one of the opening moves of the war of independence from Spain.

The next celebration after El Señor de la Columna was on the following Friday–two days before Palm Sunday–which is Viernes de Dolores, Friday of the Sorrows.   It isn´t celebrated in most of the country, but it is spectacular here in San Miguel. People create altars in their homes and shops and invite everyone in. The focal point of most is a figure or painting of Mary. (The munchkin got into the swing of things and started judging whether each Mary looked sad or not after I told her that the holiday was about Mary being sad and was called “the day of being sad.” Joy translated it more literally, if less reverently, as “Pain Friday.”) Jesus also figures prominently, of course. I loved the one made of different-colored seeds:

And this Golgotha in petals or sawdust or some combination:

Almost all of the altars had candles, wheat grass (symbolizing our daily bread, if I understood the explanation correctly—it was in Spanish), sour—not sweet—oranges, silver or foil, papel picado (cut paper), the colors purple and white, and so much chamomile and other herbs that the air around each altar was fragrant.

(Many of San Miguel’s ubiquitous fountains were decorated also.)

Visitors crossed themselves or took pictures, or, occasionally, did both. (Before taking photos at each place, we asked if it was okay. Everyone said yes.) The hosts gave out ice cream, paletas (popsicles), and fruit juice to the visitors.

This made it a winner with the munchkin. If she converts to Catholicism one day, we’ll know when the idea first entered her mind.

Viernes de Dolores might swing a person either way. On the one hand, there are the ice cream treats. On the other hand, there’s Jesus on the cross, with not only the usual five wounds, but (at some homes where the devotees are clearly of the “the more dolores the better” school of theological thought), copiously bleeding head and back as well. Though come to think of it, given a three-year-old’s sadistic imagination, both the ice cream and the suffering might put the event into the win column. I did learn that she knows what a cross is. She pointed one out and told me what it was and that it has four “sides.”

Anyway, we all loved the whole evening. I loved the mood on the streets, which was a mix of festivity and solemnity that’s familiar by now, after two months here. Street food, talking and laughing, almost a carnival feeling; then the entry into another altar space, with people making the sign of the cross, darkness set off by candles, and muted music: at some, Gregorian chants that made me want to stay and take in more Alleluias; at others, a rusty children’s choir that set my teeth on edge.

The next occasion was Palm Sunday, and I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.

Palms not only decorate the streets (the color changes from purple to red)

…but are also made into countless different shapes. Someone gave us a wheat-shaped one.

The Parroquia, the parish church, also donned red for its solemn role of welcoming Jesus into the city.

We had tried luring the munchkin, who was grumpy and didn’t want to leave the house this morning, with promises that she’d see a man riding on a burro, but it turned out that the star of the procession was just a statue of Jesus riding on a donkey, albeit one that’s over 200 years old. There had been another procession at something like 4 a.m., and we think the actual man on actual burro was only at that one. Munchkin took the substitution in stride.

I thought we might have trouble finding a place to stand along the route, but I think there were more San Miguel natives in the peregrinación than watching it. Priests and altar boys, of course; dancers in native dress; school kids (and older folks too) who did cheers for María and Jésus as if for the stars of the basketball team; lots of people just walking, carrying babies, singing.

The people along the route participated too. The women next to us had baskets of rose petals, and invited Munchkin to join them in tossing them onto the marchers, which she did.

I found it all very moving. Not so much the “Give me a J!” cheers, maybe, but the joy in the air as people welcomed their Savior.  I, with my more humanistic take on Jesus’ death, wanted to yell, “Go back, Jesus! Get out of town while you can!”  But of course the proper Catholic view is that the whole week, including the crucifixion, is cause for celebration and thanks, which is why the mixture of gaiety and serious chanting, shiny flags and weeping Marys, laughter and incense, is so appropriate.