COMAYAGUA – The tolling of the church bell echoed through the moonlit square.
“Five o’clock,” spoke a voice from the darkness. The figures crouched next to the looming Cathedral paid no attention, their focus on the task at hand.
Beneath the yellow light of the streetlamps, they sprinkled brightly colored sawdust onto cardboard stencils, creating intricate patterns and religious portraits in the street. Nearby, several children slept on the sidewalk amid half-empty bottles of water and bags of sawdust, oblivious to the activity around them.
This small group was one of dozens that had gathered at around midnight on Holy Thursday to begin the painstaking process of creating las alfombras – the sawdust carpets that are an integral part of Comayagua’s Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations.
The tradition in this Honduras city dates back to May of 1963, when a woman named Miriam Elvira Mejia Rivera de Zapata of El Salvador created a single sawdust carpet in front of the Cathedral. The following year, the carpet appeared on Good Friday, in preparation for the procession reliving the passion of Christ.
Ever since, the carpets have decorated the route taken by the Via Crucis – the procession re-enacting Jesus’ arduous walk carrying the cross down the streets of Jerusalem to the site of his crucifixion. The multicolored offerings are aimed at making the trip less painful for Christ, and are a symbol of his followers’ faith and devotion.
This year, more than 40 families, businesses and community organizations were involved in the creative process.
Among them was the Yuja Valle family. They’ve been decorating the street in front of their house for the past six years. This year, after choosing a design from a poster, about 25 family members and friends labored for nine hours to create a carpet not out of sawdust – but coffee.
“It took three months to get all the coffee,” laughed Billy Yuja Valle. He explained that they collected used coffee grounds from a local café and dried them in the sun.
Other groups adorned their carpets with natural materials such as stones, shells, wood shavings and fresh flowers.
“It’s great how they can take the simplest things you can find anywhere and put together something so intricate,” said Nick Fox, as he and several of his colleagues from the nearby Soto Cano military base admired a carpet decorated with small stones and seeds.
But make no mistake – sawdust is the main ingredient here. And turning it into the colors of the rainbow is a process in itself.
First, the sawdust is sifted so that its texture is as fine as possible. Then it’s mixed with water and a special paint from Guatemala to give it a brilliant color. Finally, the sawdust is spread out to dry in the sun for about three days.
To achieve the color black, the sawdust is mixed with burned oil. Artists wanting the color white typically use salt, flour or sugar.
As the sun rose over the Cathedral on the morning of Good Friday, the groups scrambled to finish their elaborate works of art.
“It’s incredible. A lot of work goes into it,” said American college student Heidi Baker, as she took a break from stenciling a brown footprint. Baker had been volunteering at a local orphanage and ended up lending a hand with the group’s carpet.
Three hours later, the procession was underway – and one by one, the carefully crafted sawdust carpets were trampled by hundreds of feet. All the months of planning and design, the hours of meticulous work – destroyed in an instant. But as anyone who has made one of these carpets will tell you, the real joy is in the creation.
First published in April 2009, Honduras This Week