This week, millions of Latin Americans are attending worship services observing Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

In Uruguay, they are going to the rodeo.

While their Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking neighbors mark the death and resurrection of Christ, locals from the country of 3.3 million are celebrating Semana Criolla (“Creole Week”), a series of festivals honoring the country’s gaucho heritage. Many come to watch Uruguay’s national sport, jineteada, where riders attempt to stay on the back of untamed horses. Few of the activities, which also include traditional music and dancing, acknowledge the Christianity calendar, except when it comes to eating asado criollo.

Vendors sell the country’s local barbeque throughout the week, except on Thursday and Friday, a nod to the country’s Catholic heritage.

“It’s one of our many idiosyncrasies,” said Karina T., an anthropologist from Montevideo. (CT is only identifying her by her last initial because of sensitivity concerns about her ministry to Muslims.) “If you ask somebody why they eat fish on those days, they will probably say that it is something their grandparents did. Only a few will say something about religion. They don’t even know.”

This ignorance is somewhat intentional.

Uruguay was one of the first countries in the Western Hemisphere to constitutionally separate church and state, and nowhere is secularism more apparent than in the nation’s rebrand of Christian holidays. In 1919, the government legally changed December 25 to the Fiesta de la Familia and Holy Week to the Semana del Turismo (“Tourism Week”), during which time the capital city holds Semana Criolla.

January 6, known elsewhere as Día de Reyes (Epiphany), became Día de los Niños (“Children’s Day”), and December 8, when Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, became Día de las Playas (“Beach Day”).

The Uruguayan legislators’ intent was to “absorb” Christian holidays and take Christ out of the celebrations. With the exception of Christmas, when Christians organize open-air events and try to evangelize more directly with non-believers, the government has largely succeeded, says Marcelo Piriz, pastor of Comunidad Vida Nueva in Montevideo, calling the holiday “D-day for churches.”

In contrast, many churches struggle with Easter and Holy Week. While some congregations may organize special programs, their outreach is limited, often due to size.

Article continues below

“Average church membership is around 50 people. A congregation of 100 would be a small church in other parts of Latin America, but it’s big here,” said Facundo Luzardo, Baptist pastor of Iglesia Bautista Adulam in Las Piedras and a professor at Seminario Biblico del Uruguay.

These numbers can shrink further when people heed the call of tourism week.

“Even in the church, some members prefer other activities,” said Piriz. “They may go to the countryside, or fathers may go teach their sons how to fish, for example.”

Uruguay’s loose attachment to Christianity goes way back.

Until the end of the 1800s, the country was sparsely populated. “Even the indigenous people, the charruas, didn’t have a belief system,” said Pedro Lapadjian, pastor of Esperanza en la Ciudad in Montevideo and author of two books about the history of evangelicals in Uruguay.

The presence of Roman Catholics, seemingly ubiquitous throughout Latin America, arrived later in the region. The first bishop was installed in 1878—more than 250 years after a bishop was installed in neighboring Buenos Aires, Argentina.

While many Uruguayans come from countries with a strong Catholic presence, including Spain, Italy, and France, “many of the immigrants we received in the country didn’t hold strong beliefs, or they were influenced by the liberal or Masonic trends of 19th-century Europe, including many of the Protestants,” said Lapadjian. “Intellectuals found inspiration in revolutionary France.”

Over time, the government began taking religious symbols out of public life. The state took over cemeteries previously managed by the Catholic church and removed crosses from schools and hospitals.

In 1907, Uruguay was the first country in Latin America to legalize divorce. The country legalized euthanasia in 2009, and same-sex marriage and the production and selling of cannabis in 2013. It first decriminalized abortion in the 1930s for a brief period and then legalized it in 2012.

Protestantism showed up in Uruguay in the beginning of the 1800s thanks to the Anglicans, though they primarily focused their ministry on British families living in Montevideo. Then came the missionaries—first the Methodists in 1835, then the Lutherans in 1846 and the Presbyterians in 1849. New groups landed in the second half of the 1800s, but their arrival coincided with the growing secularization of the newly sovereign country (Uruguay became independent in 1825).

Article continues below

Currently, evangelicals make up 8.1 percent of the population, according to a 2021 Latinobarómetro survey, up from 4.6 percent in 2019. But 38 percent of Uruguayans define themselves as atheists or agnostics.

These demographic realities shape how evangelical leaders preach and reach out to their communities. When Lapadjian travels to speak in Chile, Bolivia, or Colombia, he often jokes, “I’m going to Latin America.”

“When you preach in Latin America, you have an audience that already has a knowledge of God, Christ. There’s a common ground,” he said. “When you’re preaching in a secular country, first you have to fight to prove that God exists.”

Luzardo defines his homeland as “an agnostic country.” He says there’s some public curiosity about religions like Hinduism or Buddhism, but most are apathetic when it comes to Christianity.

“An Uruguayan will be very polite and will listen to you, but will show no interest,” said Karina T.

While Uruguayan Christians take part in many of the Semana Criolla festivities, they also find ways to celebrate Holy Week.

At Comunidad Vida Nueva, Piriz organizes a youth group church sleepover on Palm Sunday and takes the young people camping. Guest preachers teach at special services on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Children who receive meals at the community cafeteria will be given Easter eggs. Each gathering is expected to have around 120 people, twice the usual attendance at regular services. “In these celebrations, the challenge is to surpass who we are,” said Piriz, hoping services would have more non-members than members.

At Esperanza en la Ciudad, Lapadjian’s preaching leading up to Holy Week called his congregation to embrace the motto “¡Vamos por Más!” (“Let’s Go for More!”) and to serve their community. The initiative included a call to donate to the national blood bank, which lost some of its supply in January when its building was partially destroyed by fire.

“Easter is about donating blood, because the blood of Jesus Christ was shed for the forgiveness of our sins,” he said.

[ This article is also available in español. ]