Easter itself is an 8-day celebration, and even after the Octave concludes on Low Sunday, the Easter Season lasts for a total of fifty days until the completion of Ascensiontide and the celebration of Pentecost Sunday. This period of time, especially for the Octave of Easter, is enriched with many rich customs all expressing the heartfelt joy of the faithful that the Lord, brutally murdered on the Cross, is alive. Alleluia!
Father Weiser in the “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs” echoes these sentiments and shows the importance of Easter customs since times immemorial:
The joy and exultation over this greatest of all Christian feasts is evident in the writings of the saints and Fathers from earliest times. Easter is referred to as the ‘peak (akropolis) of all feasts’ and the ‘Queen of all solemnities.’ Saint Gregory of Nazianzen (390) wrote, ‘This highest Feast and greatest celebration so much surpasses not only civic holidays but also the other feast days of the Lord, that it is like the sun among stars.’
It is fitting that this most holy of celebrations be enhanced with customs by the faithful. And many of these customs are thankfully still found in our world. May they increase along with the number of faithful Catholics year by year!
The Paschal Greeting
The most conspicuous custom of Eastertide still in practice today, at least among Eastern Catholics, is the greeting “Christ is risen!”
Outside Paschaltide, it is traditional for Catholics to greet one another with the greeting, “Laudetur Iesus Christus!” [May Jesus Christ be praised!] to which the other responds with some variation of “In Saecula!” [Unto the Ages / Forever!].
Now, throughout the weeks of Eastertide, Christians greet one another with “Christ is risen!” to which the other responds with “He is risen indeed!” Some versions have the answer as “And He has appeared unto Simon.”
Try teaching your children to greet another throughout the Easter season like this. So instead of “Good morning” and “Good night” and “Hello,” instead say “Christ is risen! / He is risen indeed!”
This begins already in the liturgy of the Eastern Vigil and goes through the Octave. The greeting is maintained in the versicle for the Regina Caeli throughout Pascaltide.
Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday as Holy Days of Obligation
When writing about the rank of days in the Catholic Liturgical calendar, there are various ways to label them. In the modern Church, they will use the terms solemnity, feast, memorial, or optional memorial. In the 1962 Missal, we have First, Second, Third, or Fourth Class feastdays. But before the 1962 Missal up until the changes made by Pope Pius XII in 1955, there were from least to most important: Simples, Semidoubles, Lesser Doubles (also known as Doubles), Greater Doubles, Doubles of the second class, and Doubles of the first class.
Using the traditional pre-1955 calendar, we notice something very interesting about Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday. Easter Monday and Tuesday are doubles of the first class whereas the rest of the Easter Octave is a semi-double. Even with the variation in rank, the Easter Octave is privileged and no other feastday may occur in the Octave.
What’s unique about Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday is that no other saints are commemorated those days in the Mass or the Divine Office. Why the special treatment for Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday? It is because they were universal holy days of obligation for a very long time. Easter Tuesday was not dropped from the list until 1771 by Pope Clement XIV; Easter Monday was dropped from the universal list at the beginning of the 20th century but is still a Holy Day of Obligation in many places to this very day. In Catholic European countries, it is still common to have Easter Monday off as a paid holiday, which gives rise to many customs practiced on that day. The other days of Easter Week (i.e., Easter Wednesday through Easter Saturday) ceased being holy days much earlier in the Middle Ages, yet nevertheless, some customs for these days do also remain.
The unequaled Dom Gueranger, in his seminal work, The Liturgical Year, writes:
So fervently did the faithful of those times appreciate and love the Liturgy, so lively was the interest they took in the newly made children of holy mother Church, that they joyfully went through the whole of the services of this week. Their hearts were filled with the joy of the Resurrection, and they thought it but right to devote their whole time to its celebration. Councils laid down canons, changing the pious custom into a formal law. The Council of Mâcon, in 585, thus words its decree: ‘It behoves us all fervently to celebrate the feast of the Pasch, in which our great High Priest was slain for our sins, and to honour it by carefully observing all it pre-scribes. Let no one, therefore, do any servile work during these six days (which followed the Sunday), but let all come together to sing the Easter hymns, and assist at the daily Sacrifice, and praise our Creator and Redeemer in the evening, morning, and mid-day.’
The Councils of Mayence (813) and Meaux (845) lay down similar rules. We find the same prescribed in Spain, in the seventh century, by the edicts of kings Receswind and Wamba. The Greek Church renewed them in her Council in Trullo; Charlemagne, Louis the Good, Charles the Bald, sanctioned them in their Capitularia; and the canonists of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Burchard, St Ivo of Chartres, Gratian, tell us they were in force in their time. Finally, Pope Gregory IX inserted them in one of his decretals in the thirteenth century. But their observance had then fallen into desuetude, at least in many places. The Council held at Constance, in 1094, reduced the solemnity of Easter to the Monday and Tuesday.
The two great liturgists, John Beleth in the twelfth, and Durandus in the thirteenth century, inform us that, in their times, this was the practice in France. It gradually became the discipline of the whole of the western Church, and continued to be so, until relaxation crept still further on, and a dispensation was obtained by some countries, first for the Tuesday, and finally for the Monday. In order fully to understand the Liturgy of the whole Easter Octave (Low Sunday included), we must remember that the neophytes were formerly present, vested in their white garments, at the Mass and Divine Office of each day. Allusions to their Baptism are continually being made in the chants and lessons of the entire week.
We should ask ourselves, how do we plan to keep the celebration of Easter alive this year throughout the Octave? One custom that we can observe, which is still observed in some parts of Europe, is the Emmaus Walk.
The Emmaus Walk on Easter Monday
As a result of Easter Monday remaining a Holy Day of Obligation until the time of Pope St. Pius X, and a result of it still largely remaining as a paid holiday, the Emmaus Walk is still practiced in places. What is the Emmaus walk? It is first and foremost what it sounds like – a walk. It can take the simple form of a walk with friend and family on a day spent in relaxation and leisure. The name for this custom is inspired by the traditional Gospel read on Easter Monday which is taken from the 24th chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel which recounts our Lord appearing to two of His followers who were on the road of Emmaus. In Germany and Austria, children can still be found to play Easter games and sports (Osterspiele) in the Easter field (Osteranger) on Easter Monday. And in the French region of Canada, the Emmaus walk takes the form of a visit to the grandparents.
We can continue this tradition by taking Easter Monday off work and spending the day out in nature with a long walk and a picnic with our families. Spend time enjoying lunch after an end to the fast of Lent, and cherish the company of others around you in the spring air.
Another Easter Monday tradition is found in Hungary where young men will pour buckets of water over young women’s heads while asking for a kiss and a red egg in return. This custom relates to the healing and cleansing effects of water, which we see in the Church’s blessing of holy water on Holy Saturday. Even throughout Pascaltide we will sing the Vidi Aquam, which expresses the healing effect of water instead of the Asperges, before Sunday’s principal Mass.
Easter Food Customs
As the holiest of all Christian holy days, it is fitting that Easter is rife with customs. While cultures may vary in how they observed Easter, a unifying theme throughout is found in food. After having completed 40 days of fasting and 46 days of abstinence, Easter ushers in a period of fifty days where the faithful celebrate through various meats, eggs, dairy products, and other foods which were forbidden in Lent.
On Holy Saturday, the custom originated for the faithful to bring their Easter foods to church where the priest would bless them. The Roman Ritual provides a beautiful blessing of Easter food in the form of blessings of lamb, eggs, bread, and new produce. See Page 225 – 227 for a translation of the prayers in English.
Which foods are found in Easter baskets varied from culture to culture. In Slavic regions, ham was often the main dish because of its richness and serving it was a symbol of joy and abundance at Easter. But lamb and veal were found too. But in any case, the meats were often cooked together so as not to burden the cooks with too much preparation on such a great holy day. In Hungary, Easter is referred to as the “Feast of Meat” (Husvet), because the eating of meat resumes after the long fast of Lent.
As a consequence of having traditionally abstained from all butter, eggs, and cheese, these foods were often found in baskets as well. We see this first and foremost in the continued tradition of Easter Eggs. One truly appreciates Easter Eggs only after having forgone eggs for 46 days. After such a time, having an egg is truly a treat! Russian eggs are traditionally died red due to a story dating back to St. Mary Magdalene, but other cultures have chosen to paint even elaborate symbols on the eggs. (The story is told that St. Mary Magdalene preached the Gospel to a doubter who asked for a miracle – prompting a white egg to turn red. The red egg also symbolizes the Passion, which, after it is broken shows the egg white, which symbolizes the Resurrection.)
And let us not forget cheese. As another item formerly forbidden in Lent, cheese is a great treat to those who have abstained from it for the 46 days of abstinence. The Russians would customarily make a custard type of cheese that was shaped into a ball. Known for its bland but sweet taste, it was meant to indicate that it is fitting that Christians should still engage in moderation and never gluttony even in Eastertide. And on this point, Fr. Goffine expresses similar rationale for why the Church enriches such customs with blessings from the Roman Ritual:
Why does the Church on this day bless eggs, bread, and meat? To remind the faithful that although the time of fasting is now ended, they should not indulge in gluttony, but thank God, and use their food simply for the necessary preservation of physical strength.
Russian Easter baskets will often feature salt as well as a reminder of our Lord’s own words in Matthew 5:13, which remind the Christian of his duty. And alongside these items is sometimes found horseradish, which symbolizes the passion of Christ yet, when mixed with sugar, helps us see how the Resurrection has sweetened the Passion of Christ. Indeed, the details indicate to us how cultures valued and celebrated the Resurrection with intricate attention to detail. Even the butter in some baskets would be shaped into the figure of a small lamb or at least decorated in stick form with the image of a cross on the top.
This year, ask your priest to bless your Easter foods, even if it is a few days after Easter Sunday, and enjoy these worthwhile treats with your family as a reward for your abstinence this Lent.
Agnus Dei Sacramental
Even after Easter Tuesday concludes, the faithful continued to celebrate through customs the reality that priests were still celebrating in the Mass and Office throughout Easter Week – Christ is risen!
One virtually forgotten custom is the blessing of Agnus Dei Sacramentals. The Catholic Encyclopedia, written in 1907, explains their connection to Easter Week:
We learn from an ‘Ordo Romanus’ printed by Muratori (‘Lit. Rom,’ II, p. 1,004) that in the ninth century the archdeacon manufactured the Agnus Deis early on Holy Saturday morning out of clean wax mixed with chrism, and that they were distributed by him to the people on the Saturday following (Sabbato in Albis). At a later date the Pope himself generally assisted at both the blessing and the distribution. The great consecration of Agnus Deis took place only in the first year of each pontificate and every seventh year afterwards, which rule is still followed. The discs of wax are now prepared beforehand by certain monks, and without the use of chrism. On the Wednesday of Easter week these discs are brought to the Pope, who dips them into a vessel of water mixed with chrism and balsam, adding various consecratory prayers. The distribution takes place with solemnity on the Saturday following, when the Pope, after the ‘Agnus Dei’ of the Mass, puts a packet of Agnus Deis into the inverted mitre of each cardinal and bishop who comes up to receive them.
For the Rite of the Blessing of the Angus Dei, click here. This ceremony shows the splendor and holiness inherent in the Church’s traditional blessings. The last pope to consecrate the wax and make it available was Pope Pius XII, which makes them incredibly hard to find, but to those who have inherited them, they are a true family treasure.
As Easter Friday arrives, the faithful in Austria still spend the day in celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection by making day pilgrimages called Osterwallfahrt. The faithful would walk for hours preceded by a cross and banners – sometimes even 10 hours each way! In some sections of Germany and Austria, the pilgrimage would occur on horseback as the faithful would be accompanied by a band playing Easter hymns in joyous fashion.
Sabbato in Albis
The ancient custom for those who received the Sacrament of Baptism on Holy Saturday was to wear the same white garment throughout the Octave. For this reason, Easter Week was also called “White Week” in the Western Church (it is known as “Bright Week” among Greek Catholics). The neophytes would attend Mass together each day of the Octave and the bishop would address them with special instruction and words of encouragement after Mass. That would continue until Saturday in Easter Week when they would lay aside their white garment for regular clothes and assume their place amongst all the faithful. For that reason, the Saturday in the Octave of Easter was called “Sabbato in Albis” which is Latin for “Saturday in white”
Dom Gueranger writes of this day:
In Rome, the Station is in the Lateran Basilica, the mother and mistress of all churches. It is close to the baptistery of Constantine, where, eight days back, the neophytes received the grace of regeneration. The basilica, wherein they are now assembled, is that from which they set out, during the still and dark night, to the font of salvation, led on by the mysterious light of the Paschal torch. It was to this same church that they returned after their Baptism, clad in their white robes, and assisted, for the first time, at the entire celebration of the Christian Sacrifice, and received the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus. No other place could have been more appropriate for the Station of this day, whereon they were to return to the ordinary duties of life. Holy Church sees assembled around her these her new-born children. It is the last time that she will see them in their white garments, and she looks at them with all the affection of a joyful mother. They are most dear to her, as the fruit of heaven’s own giving; and during the week she has frequently given expression to her maternal pride, in canticles such as she alone can sing.
The Sunday of Many Names
The Sunday after Easter Sunday is not lacking in names. Known as the Octave of the Pasch, White Sunday, Low Sunday, Quasimodo Sunday, and in the Novus Ordo, as Divine Mercy Sunday, this is the final day of the Octave of Easter. The most common traditional name of “Low Sunday” comes from the practice of counting the octave day as belonging to the feast itself so Easter had two Sundays. Low Sunday is in contrast to Easter Sunday (i.e., High Sunday) from the week before.
Low Sunday had its own customs as well. In the Middle Ages, this was customarily the day on which children would make their First Communion. And in some places, this occurred as the father and mother would kneel beside their child and already receive Holy Communion at the same time. In our times, it reminds us of the importance of hearing Holy Mass as a family every single Sunday of the year.
Easter Duty Reminder
With the disciples, let us celebrate with unparalleled joy the end of the Great Fast and the resurrection of the Redeemer of the world Who really – in the greatest display of His divinity – resurrected Himself. In addition to the customs mentioned, it is important to also fulfill our Easter Duty before Trinity Sunday, if we have not already done so. Do note that in some countries, the time within which the Easter Communion must be received commences on Palm Sunday and terminates on Low Sunday. In the United States, it is between the First Sunday of Lent and Trinity Sunday.
Keep in mind this was just a sampling of the many Easter Week customs. For more information, the Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Father Weiser would be a good read.
In the end, Easter Week, a week replete with customs from all Catholic cultures, draws to a close even as the Pascal Season continues. While Lent was observed by fasting for 40 days and abstinence for 46 days, we celebrate Easter for 50 days, not including the Octave of Pentecost. The Saturday following the Octave of Pentecost officially begins the Season After Pentecost. The total length of Paschaltide from Easter Sunday to the end of Whitsuntide is 56 days inclusive. In this way, Holy Mother Church shows us the joy of Easter has eclipsed the time of penance of Lent. Pascaltide is also time for a special daily meal blessing, time for us to pray the Regina Caeli daily (in place of the Angelus), and time for us to greet each other with the special Pascal greeting.
Above all, Easter is a call to a new life with Christ. It is a time to put into habitual practice the good habits, the works of charity, and the regular fasting we performed in Lent. One way we can do this is to keep Fridays throughout the year as days of fast, which used to be required in former times, and to keep Fridays and Saturdays as days of abstinence. Even Easter Friday should be kept as a day of abstinence.
May the Good Lord fill our hearts with His love and grace so that the great joy we experience of seeing the sunrise on Easter Sunday morning never fade from our hearts. As Father Goffine reminds us:
What encouragement does the Resurrection of Christ give us? It encourages us to rise spiritually with Him, and live henceforth a new life, (Rom. VI. 4.) which we do if we not only renounce sin, but also flee from all its occasions, lay aside our bad habits, subdue our corrupt inclinations, and aim after virtue and heavenly things (Taken from Father Goffine’s “The Church’s Year”).
This Easter, let us pray that those changes are permanent so that we who were baptized in Christ’s death may rise to new life and live always in the state of sanctifying grace.
Photo by Allison Girone, used with permission.
Matthew Plese is a Third Order Dominican who resides in Chicago, IL. Matthew is a practicing Certified Public Accountant and Catechist. He is the President of CatechismClass.com, an online based organization whose mission is to make the best in Catholic religious education and Sacramental preparation available for those who need it. Matthew writes a monthly piece on apologetics and catechesis for Catholic Family News and a weekly column for the Fatima Center. He is also the author of Catholic Book Summaries: 54 Traditional and Contemporary Classics; Eschatology: The Catholic Study of the Four Last Things; Understanding the Precepts of the Church, and The Roman Catechism Explained for the Modern World as well as The Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting & Abstinence. He also blogs at A Catholic Life.