San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fear, Fun Reigned on Judas Night

Ah, the good old days, when nights were quiet, values were respected and everyone went to bed early after saying their prayers; when Semana Santa, Easter Holy Week, was the most solemn week of the year, observed by the faithful with processions, fasting, visits to the church and confession to cleanse the soul of all taint of evil. Frivolity was unthinkable.

Then, in the final hours before Easter Sunday, all hell broke loose because Saturday night was Judas Night.After 40 days of joyless Lent, the young and manly portion of the population was ready for some action, a little fun and pranks to scare decent folks out of their beds in the middle of the quiet night.

Life without electricity, still within memory in many rural areas, made Judas Night all the better. Eight o’clock was dark enough and late enough for the fun to begin, with everyone already in bed and lots to do. First, the pranksters had to construct a Judas by nailing or lashing together a long board or stick for a body and a shorter one for the arms. Then it had to be dressed in old clothes, possibly snatched off a clothesline, and the clothes stuffed with dried grass and firecrackers. A big ayote, or pumpkin, was attached for a head, and shoes made it better for walking the Judas up and down the road to visit houses.

Though all knew it was Judas Night, it was still a fright to answer a knock on the door in the dark and face a monster with a pumpkin head. Occasionally a homeowner would come to the door with a shotgun and blast the Judas full of shot, sending the boys racing for cover. It was all part of the fun.

But there was a lot more to Judas Night. Stealing potted plants and porch furniture and carting them off to the town plaza was expected, and Easter morning saw many neighbors out on the road carrying chairs, ferns, begonias and maybe even the front gate home. Still memorable are the times they carried off a bed with someone sleeping in it. Even oxcarts and outhouses were likely to disappear that night, to be found the next morning in the town plaza.

It was a busy night for the boys. Filling a tire with dried sugarcane, setting it on fire and rolling it down the road was a good prank.

Dressing up like a woman and entering the home of the town bachelor, who was a little nearsighted, was hilarious. Shaking a wooden house so hard the people inside thought it was an earthquake and ran out screaming for safety still brings chuckles to the graying,middle-aged guys who did it. Getting a pig to lie down in the gutter next to the village tippler who never made it home was a side-splitter.

As sunrise approached there was still one more act to go: the burning of all the Judases in the town plaza. Across Costa Rica, Easter Sunday dawned with a bang as thousands of firecrackers went off.

All that fun is prohibited now, because things got out of hand (shooting animals, lighting houses and cars on fire, etc.). Any attempt to steal porch furniture or set off firecrackers would bring out the police. Streetlights and road traffic have stolen the darkness that made Judas Night so successful. But still, now and then, we hear of this old tradition being revived.


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