21 Mar How is Lent or Holy Week Celebrated around the World?
The Lenten Season, or what we call Lent, traditionally starts around January and culminates during what we call “Holy Week” and finally, Easter Sunday. Christians around the world, especially in the Philippines, become aware of Lent when all meat disappears during the Friday mealtimes (fasting) following Ash Wednesday, while Palm Sunday signals the beginning of Holy Week. So, have you ever wondered what other people do in other countries during Holy Week, or how Holy Week is celebrated in other countries?
Catholics all over the world follow basically the same traditional practices, with some countries having variations over these traditions. Holy week usually starts during Palm Sunday when worshippers carry palm leaves to the mass or processions so priests can bless the leaves. During processions, passion plays, Stations of the Cross, and reenactments on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, penitents, worshippers, participants, and volunteers dress up in penitential robes and Roman soldier costumes, while others are selected to act as Jesus, the apostles, Pontius Pilate, etc. In some South American countries, instead of the reenactment, people dressed in Roman soldier costumes carry a statue of the Jesus Nazareno (Jesus of Nazareth) while worshippers follow or wait by the roadside. In some countries, penitents are flogged in public while joining the processions or flagellate themselves. These flagellations are real and cause real wounds on the backs of the penitents.
Churches during Holy Week are left open almost 24 hours so older worshippers or those who shun processions can do their own and quiet Station of the Cross inside the church. This is possible since in most Catholic dominant countries, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are recognized by the government as legal religious national holidays. Some Christian non-Catholic churches usually choose to ignore traditional Holy Week festivities and instead hold their own church services during Good Friday, Black Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
Probably the weirdest and only Holy Week tradition of its kind in the world is practiced in the Philippines where penitent “volunteers” undergo the same suffering as Jesus Christ, culminating in being nailed to a cross. However, after only a minute or two on the cross, the penitent is brought down and immediately driven to a nearby hospital by a waiting ambulance and paramedic crew.
In Denmark, Holy Week isn’t celebrated but Easter Sunday is called “Fastelavn.” Children go around dressed up in costumes and are given cream- or jam-filled buns to eat. A barrel filled with candy is beaten with wooden sticks and the first two children to break the barrel are crowned as Cat King and Cat Queen. This is because in ancient times the barrel used to contain a cat rather than candy.
In Greece, because most Greeks are Orthodox Christians, the only national holiday celebrated for Holy Week is the Monday before Ash Wednesday, called Clean Monday or Kathari Theftera. Families go to the countryside or beaches for picnics and kite-flying. However, they do give up meat and animal products during the whole Lenten season, feasting instead on beans, orzo, and pasta, as well as cookies and cakes.
England is a different sort of Christian country because of the Church of England. Lent is marked by eating pancakes rather than meat on Fridays and even holding pancake races. They also cook hot cross buns that symbolize the Christian Cross. Churches are usually busy during Easter Sunday which they refer to as “Mothering Sunday” and so many babies are baptized during this Sunday.
You’ll never guess that Holy Week is celebrated in India and jointly celebrated by Christians, Hindu, and Muslim worshippers. The three days before Easter Sunday is celebrated with music, dancing, and food festivals, culminating in a huge mass on Easter. During Ash Wednesday all three religions have a Raasa (in Sanskrit meaning “fun”) Parade with music, dancing, and fireworks. In all of Indian history, there have been no recorded violence between the three religions during these Holy Week celebrations, making it the most unique of all Lenten celebrations.
North Africa and Middle East
Among North African and Middle Eastern Countries, although Muslims do not celebrate Holy Week, Lent is mentioned in their Holy Koran and so during the Lenten season they abstain from partaking meat, dairy products, eggs, fish, olive oil, and alcohol during Fridays.
In Germany, people burn old Christmas trees during Holy Week to welcome the spring season. Holy Thursday is called “Green Thursday” wherein only naturally green foods like vegetables and fruits are eaten, with other foods completely abstained from.
Sweden is a country known for the majority of its population being atheists. And yet on the Tuesday of Holy Week that Swedes call “Fat Tuesday,” families eat pancakes accompanied by bowls of pea soup. On Holy or Maundy Thursday, children dress as witches go “trick or treating” (since Swedes don’t celebrate Halloween) and knock on doors to receive candy and “Easter” eggs.
In most of Italy, a predominantly Catholic country, local churches distribute bottles of holy water so families can bless their own homes during Holy Week. Imagine all the priests trying to do that in the whole of Italy, so this makes sense.
In a specific city in Mexico called Oaxaca, Good Friday is observed by making fresh fruit juice and homemade ice cream and giving them out to passersby. This is to honor the memory of the good Samaritan woman who gave water to Jesus on his way to Galilee.
The city of New Orleans, Louisiana, still holds the old French traditions of celebrating Holy Week with week-long Mardi Gras festivities such as raucous carnivals, masked balls, and whatever parties the people of New Orleans can dream up during Mardi Gras week.
Brazil holds the world’s biggest, longest, and most famous carnival celebration starting on Palm Sunday and finishing four days after. The highlight is always the lively Rio Samba Parade usually participated by an average of 70,000 people, in mostly half-naked costumes (in some cases, no costumes and no clothes at all).
In Australia, Canada, and other former British Commonwealth countries except India, Holy Week is not celebrated and not considered as public holidays. However, Easter Sunday is observed, and since this holiday falls on a Sunday, the next day is a non-working national holiday called Easter Monday. Families hold reunions and picnics on Easter Monday while the children go on Easter egg hunts.