Two-thirds of Chile’s 18 million people identify as Roman Catholics, and the Easter traditions followed are mainly Catholic in origin.
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In Chile, Easter is considered the most important holiday on the calendar, and the festivities begin on the Sunday preceding Easter and end on the Sunday following it.
The Easter season begins on Palm Sunday, which commemorates the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion. Most Chileans attend Mass and are given bales of corn-leaves, straw, or palm leaves that have been blessed by a priest. They then take these bales home and use them to bless their houses.
From Monday through Wednesday, people gather at churches to take Communion during Holy Week. They spend much of this time in solemn reflection and make attempts to expiate past sins and shortcomings.
On Holy Thursday, the people of Chile flock by the millions to the sea shore, particularly to the port city of Valparaíso. During the evening, they remember the Last Supper where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet the night before he was crucified. They perform foot-washing ceremonies, conduct prayer vigils, and witness “altar-bread processions.”
Good Friday is a national holiday in Chile, but it is also a time of listening to “mourning programs” on the radio, which play somber music from this day till Easter Morning. In church services, prayer vigils devoid of the usual chanting and music are held, and the tone is extremely sad and reflective. Flowers, candles, crucifixes, and all manner of ordinary decorations are removed from the churches or hidden.
Meanwhile, the streets are nearly deserted, and almost all places of business are closed. Then, at evening time, Chileans proceed on a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) through major cities like Santiago. Pictures of saints are carried, along with statues of Mary, lit candles, and wooden crosses.
On the day before Easter, Holy Saturday, most Chileans go the grocery stores in search of last-minute ingredients for their upcoming Easter dinner. At night, people gather at church to keep the “Easter Vigil.” A fire is lit in front of the church building, and this fire is then used to light the sacred Easter candle. This candle is used to light a host of candles held by the participants. This is called the “Night of the Light” and is meant to celebrate the glory of the Resurrection.
On Easter Sunday, things are relatively calm. The reason is that the high-point of the Easter season occurred at midnight when Sunday officially began, at the end of the Easter Vigil.
On the Sunday following Easter, a celebration fully unique to Chile occurs called “Fiesta del Cuasimodo”. This celebration dates to the 16th Century and derives from the practice of colonial priests of visiting the elderly and sick, who were unable to attend the Easter Mass, on the next Sunday after Easter. It is only a tradition in Santiago and surrounding areas, but this is where the great majority of the people live. Besides a special open-air Mass, the day is filled with cowboy performances, colourful displays, and much singing.