The week between Palm Sunday and Easter is one of the most important holidays in Paraguay. In this predominantly Catholic country (reputedly between 80 and 90 percent of the population), the celebration of Semana Santa or Holy Week occupies a position of utmost importance for families. Like all Paraguayan parties and festivals (including Christmas; quinceañeras, the coming-of-age celebrations of 15-year-old girls; and festivals of patron saints), the drill is mostly the same: large gatherings of family and friends, huge amounts of traditional Paraguayan food, singing and dancing to Paraguayan polkas, and drinking in circles as a designated server refills and passes the cup.
Unlike other holidays, however, Holy Week continues for almost 5 days (culminating in Easter Sunday, or Domingo de Pascua in Spanish). In a country of farmers and laborers, Holy Week represents the only real time off for people who work seven days a week, every week, toiling in the fields or working around the house. Another important aspect of this holiday, which sets it apart from others, is chipá, the traditional Paraguayan cheese-flavored bread that can be delicious if consumed in moderation, but if consumed in excessive amounts can feel like a slow death.
The entire family (usually not including the males, unfortunately) enters chipá-preparation mode weeks before the holiday arrives. Tens or even hundreds of pounds of materials need to be saved up to produce the massive amounts of chipá necessary for an entire week of parties. For a month before Holy Week, I could not find cheese for sale within a 5-kilometer radius of my house. Usually, the matriarch of a household prepares several pounds of fresh cheese after milking the cows each morning. Prior to Holy Week, however, this supply is not sold but instead guarded jealously. Those people lacking milk cows, such as myself, remain cheeseless for weeks on end. —Mario Machado