Holy Week starts on Palm Sunday, ends with Easter Sunday, and includes Maundy Thursday (the day of Passover/the Last Supper) and Good Friday (the day Jesus died and was crucified). It is celebrated in Christian areas throughout the world. The typical American tradition includes church, a special meal with family, and likely some egg-related activity—painting/coloring eggs, Easter baskets of chocolate eggs, and an Easter egg hunt. In addition to these activities, many parts of the world also have their own ways of celebrating. Here is a sampling of some of the most unique traditions of Easter around the world.
United States: Egg Rolling, Egg Knocking
Every Easter, the White House hosts an Easter egg roll—a race where kids push eggs with long-handled spoons through the grass on the back lawn of the White House.
In southern Louisiana Cajun communities, egg knocking is the tradition—where people tap or knock each others’ egg until all eggs are broken but one. The person with the last uncracked egg shell is the winner.
Mexico: Two Weeks of Events—Passion Plays, Processions, and Pharisees
Mexico celebrates not only Holy Week, but also a second week, called Pascua. This is a popular time to visit family and friends. Passion plays are enacted reliving the Last Supper, betrayal, judgment, 12 stations of the cross, the crucifixion (in some communities, real), and the resurrection of Jesus. Participants may prepare for their roles for the entire year. Silent candle processions throughout towns occur, Judas effigies are filled with firecrackers and ignited, and special foods are eaten (“nopal”—a type of cactus and “romeritos”—a vegetable and shrimp dish with chili sauce or powder)
In the Yaqui Indian community in northern Mexico, the main event of Holy Week occurs on Wednesday evening. “Pharisees” go to church on horseback and crawl on the floor imitating a search for Jesus. When it gets dark, they begin whipping themselves and others and groaning for penance. On Thursday morning, children and a dark hooded figure, symbolizing the betrayer of Christ, go to the church and promise to serve God for 3 years, 5 years, or the rest of their life. Thursday night there is a symbolic search for Jesus when the “Pharisees” visit various crosses in the streets and capture the “old man” (symbolic Jesus). Friday is a solemn day when a representation of Jesus is beaten and buried. On Saturday, an image of Jesus’ betrayer, Judas, is detained, as many people gather to watch the celebration. Sunday is the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and is filled with flowers and fireworks. A dance drama is performed enacting evil being defeated by good.
Guatemala: Flower Carpets
Like in many other Latin American countries, Holy Week here includes a procession through the streets with platforms holding a saint. Here the platform is carried by people in purple robes and includes a band and people in black burning incense. The most unique aspect of Holy Week here, however, are the “alfombras” (carpets) of sawdust and flowers of about a mile long line, which are created to line the streets for the week.
Bermuda: Kite Flying
Bermuda’s unique tradition for Easter includes flying homemade kites, which symbolize Christ’s resurrection. Fish cakes and hot cross buns are eaten.
Jamaica: Easter Buns
Jamaica, similarly has a tradition of buns (as it was also part of the British Empire, where the tradition began). Here the Easter buns are spiced, have raisins, and are baked in a loaf tin. They are then sliced and eaten with a slice of cheese. It is also common for employers to give employees buns and cheese.
Trinidad: Judas Dolls
In Trinidad, on Good Friday, residents make a figure of rags symbolizing Judas. The tradition is called “Bobolee”, which means stupid person or idiot. The figure is beaten as punishment for betraying Jesus. Often, the figure resembles unpopular public figures, as a way for the people to release their frustrations.
Passion plays and processions with people carrying floats accompanied by bands are common in Latin American countries. Here are a couple examples:
Brazil: Elaborate Passion Plays and Judas Beating
Holy Week in Brazil starts with the blessing of palm branches on Palm Sunday. These branches are later used in making objects like crosses or banners. “Paçoca” is a traditional sweet made of peanuts and sugar that is eaten at this time of year.
In Fazenda Nova, Pernambuco, there is a famous passion play that has been performed every year since 1951 at Nova Jerusalém. Around 600 people participate in the play, and about 10,000 people watch it each year.
Another Brazilian tradition, similar to in Trinidad, is creating straw effigies of Judas, hanging them in the streets, and beating them up.
Peru: El Señor de los Temblores and Bull Donations
Holy Monday is a full-day procession throughout the streets of the city. A blackened statue of Christ, known as “El Señor de los Temblores”* (Lord of the Earthquakes), is paraded through the streets to all the churches while onlookers throw red flowers and music plays. Once the flowers touch the statue, they are blessed, and people later collect them for their own images of Christ at home. The statue returns to the main cathedral at night as bells ring and the people packed into the main square are blessed.
*The statue received its name in 1650, when locals believed it stopped an earthquake that threatened the Cathedral. Since then, El Señor has been Cusco’s patron saint.
Probably the largest celebration in Peru for Holy Week is in Ayacucho. There are flower carpets in the city throughout the week along with folkloric dances, art shows, and livestock and food fairs.
Saturday is “Pascua Toro”—Peru’s own Running of the Bulls through the town to the Plaza de Armas accompanied by ridden horses, musicians, and crowds of people. It originated from colonial times when the upper class donated bulls to the poor so that they could eat for Easter. Now, the bulls are gifted to charitable institutions.
Spain: Hooded processions, floats, and the Dance of Death
Holy Week, Semana Santa in Spanish, involves a variety of huge, somber processions of floats with statues and hooded participants from the various religious fraternities. It is considered an honor to be chosen as one of the bearers of the platforms on which the statues ride.
- “Nazarenos” are members of religious brotherhoods who walk in the processions wearing traditional conical hoods (“capirotes”) covering their faces. They carry processional candles and may walk the city streets barefoot or have shackles and chains on their feet as penance. A band may accompany them, playing funeral marches or hymns written for the occasion.
- The tradition of carrying floats with lifelike wood or plaster sculptures of Jesus or Mary (“tronos/pasos”) through the streets of a city or town originated in Seville, but has spread throughout Andalucía and the world. Each float has decorated figures representing part of the Easter story on it. The floats and statues are often covered in gold, silver and fine cloths and decorated with flowers. Forty or fifty people carry each trono on their shoulders in the procession, which can sometimes last for hours. In Málaga, the tronos are carried by penitents dressed in long purple robes, often with pointed hats, and followed by women in black carrying candles.
- The Dance of Death takes place in Verges, Gerona, on Maundy Thursday. Five people dress as skeletons and go around town scaring people. This developed as a result of the threat of the Black Death in the 14th century.
France: Easter Bells
France’s Easter tradition, which it shares with the Netherlands and Belgium, involves church bells. For a day or more (depending on the location), the church bells are silent as a sign of mourning (for crucified Christ). It is said the bells fly to Rome (to explain their silence) and return on Easter morning with colored eggs and chocolate eggs.
Portugal: Blessings, Candlelight Processions, and Folar
In Braga, in the north of the country, on Maundy Thursday there is a nighttime procession to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in Braga Cathedral. Before this mass, the archbishop washes the feet of the twelve people who symbolize the twelve apostles.
Other parts of Portugal with nighttime processions include the medieval city of Obidos, 2 hours from Lisbon, and its two torchlight processions, and the village of Sardoal in central Portugal and its Foagareus procession completely lit by candles, lanterns, and torches (all lights in the village are turned off).
In some smaller communities, there is a tradition called the “compasso”. Here, a priest goes from house to house blessing people and carrying a figure of Jesus Christ. In every house, people kiss the figure. Then they get a traditional Easter bread known as the “folar”. This bread is baked in an oven with four unpeeled hardboiled eggs on top of it and a cross-shaped stripe of dough on top of them.
In the Castelo de Vide region, Easter celebrations have a Jewish origin. Local shepherds bring their lambs to be blessed on Saturday afternoon, and at night there is a vigil where people ask forgiveness—similar to on the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. This ends with a procession with cowbells.
Italy: Pyrotechnic Cart and the Dance of Devils
On Easter Sunday morning, a large cart pulled by white oxen is part of a procession through Florence’s city centre that ends at the front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. There, a fuse attached to a rocket in the shape of a dove holding an olive branch in its beak is lit. The dove rocket slides down a wire to the cart setting off the fireworks on the cart.
And in Sicily, there are two specific events of note:
In Trapani, there is an all-day-long procession of 20 floats depicting scenes of the Passion of Christ. This begins at 2pm on Good Friday and lasts almost 24 hours.
In Prizzi, on Easter Sunday morning, two locals dress up as red devils and another in gold, representing Death. They walk through the streets offering money and sweets to try to tempt as many people as possible to hell. In the afternoon, they encounter statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ in a procession escorted by two angels holding swords. This encounter between good and evil is known as the “Dance of the Devils” because the devils dance around to avoid meeting Christ and the Virgin. But, eventually good triumphs over evil and the angels defeat the devils.
England: Easter Bonnets, Morris Dancing, and Simnel Cake
Hot cross buns (the sweet fruit bread with crosses on the top) as well as simnel cake (a fruit cake with eleven marzipan balls on top that represent all the apostles but Judas) originated here in England. Along with these culinary traditions are two other distinctly English customs—making and wearing Easter bonnets and Morris dancing.
Ireland: Spring Cleaning and Herring Funerals
On Good Friday, the Irish often use this day to clean their homes, buy new clothes, and cut their hair and nails for renewal. And, perhaps one of the strangest rituals, butchers may conduct mock funerals for herring on Easter Sunday, marking the end of Lent when Irish could now eat meat (and not just a lot of seafood and herring).
Norway: Crime Dramas
In Norway, Easter is a time of crime. Throughout the country people buy and read detective novels and watch murder mysteries on television. Stores and businesses (except groceries, which open on Sat.) are usually closed.
Sweden: Easter Witches
In Sweden, Easter (not Halloween) is the season of the witch. On Maundy Thursday afternoon, little girls dress up in old, discarded clothes with colorful scarves and aprons, paint red circles with freckles on their cheeks, carry a broomstick or birch branch with bright feathers, and visit their neighbors to ask for candy in exchange for a drawing, letters, or cards.
Along with having their versions of the traditions of its neighbors (Easter witches and bonfires), Finland also has a couple traditions of its own. Finns plant ryegrass in a pot as a symbol of spring and new life and later decorate it with eggs after it has grown. The typical Easter desert here is mämmi—a mixture of water, rye flour, and powdered malted rye, seasoned with dark molasses, salt, and dried powdered Seville orange zest.
Germany: Easter Egg Trees
Germany’s main Easter contribution is the Easter egg tree, where decorated eggs are hung on trees or bushes. Other traditions include the following:
- Bonfires on Saturday night (or Easter day at sunset in Northern Germany and the Netherlands)
- In Franken, an Easter fountain (“Osterbrunnen”) decorated with garlands and decorated eggs
- The egg dance, where eggs are laid on the ground and people dance among them while trying not to damage them.
- Easter baskets containing not only eggs and chocolate, but also toys and other gifts. These baskets are hidden in the back garden and kids hunt for them after church on Easter Sunday.
Switzerland: Relic Cushions
In Romont in western Switzerland, weeping women carry scarlet cushions with symbols of Christ’s crucifixion—nails, a crown of thorns, a handkerchief used to wipe his brow when he carried the cross—through the streets.
Greece: White Candles and Clay Pots
On Good Friday, a replica of Christ’s tomb is carried through town and is later placed in the center of the church. On Saturday night, people come to churches carrying unlit white candles. At midnight, Christ’s resurrection is declared by saying “Christos Anesti” (Christ is Risen!) to which people reply “Alithos Anesti” (He is risen indeed!). Following this announcement, they light their candles from the holy flame brought by airplane from Christ’s nativity cave in Jerusalem that day, then walk through town while fireworks go off and bells ring.
On Holy Saturday, at 11 a.m., people in the city’s center stand on their balconies and throw clay pots (“botides”) filled with water into the streets.
Cyprus and Crete
Easter bonfires are lit and a figure of Judas Escariot is burned.
Decorating eggs, making Easter bread, getting baskets of food blessed at church, and engaging in water fights are the commonalities in many Eastern European Easter traditions.
Poland: Blessing Baskets and Water Fights
In Poland, Holy Week starts on Thursday. On this day, bishops wash the feet of twelve elderly men, just like Christ did to his apostles during the Last Supper. On Good Friday, masses are held in honor of Christ’s crucifixion; on Saturday, food baskets, filled with items such as colored eggs, bread, cake, salt, paper and white colored sausages, are taken to church to be blessed; and on Sunday, families get together at home for a meal that likely includes butter shaped into a lamb. On Monday, known as “Wet Monday”, young boys hunt for unmarried girls to throw buckets of water on in a full-on water fight.
Czech Republic & Slovakia: Whippings and Water Fights
In these countries, whippings are added to water fights. Men spank women with a whip of ribbons (historically to presumably promote good health throughout the year). In the evening or next day, women pour a pail of water over the men.
Hungary: Watering Monday
In Hungary and territories with Hungarian-speaking communities, the day after Easter is called “Watering Monday”. Men visit families with girls and women and pour or sprinkle water, perfume, or perfumed water on the women and girls of the house. The women then give the men an Easter egg in exchange.
Russia: Willow Branch Shoulder Tapping
Russians have Willow Sunday instead of Palm Sunday, due to their climate. They get the willow branches blessed at church, and people tap others on the shoulders with willow branches for good luck at this time of year.
Ukraine: Paska and Pysanka
A special bread, called paska, is prepared for the Easter meal in Ukraine. It was traditionally prepared in a firewood oven with a willow twig blessed on Palm Sunday thrown in the fire. During the making of the bread, people did not swear or talk loudly; the person preparing it was dressed in clean clothes; and a blessing for the successful baking was given. Nice paska meant good luck for the family in the coming year.
Like in other countries in this region, egg decorating is popular in Ukraine. Here, however, it’s frequently done with wax to make a design on the eggs before coloring. These wax-decorated eggs are called pysnka.
Ethiopia: All-Night Church Service
In Ethiopia, Easter (“Fasika”) involves a lengthy church service before a day of celebration. Easter church services begin at 8pm Saturday and last until 3am Sunday morning. Most people stay for the entire service and wear their best white clothes. They hold candles, and at 10pm priests chant a prayer accompanied by drummers. After the service, people return to their homes for breakfast. They eat their main meal of injera (the spongy sourdough bread) and a meat stew in the afternoon, breaking their 55-day fast of no meat or animal products.
Lebanon: Maamoul and Shanineh
In Lebanon, maamoul (cookies made of semolina and butter and stuffed with either dates, walnuts, or pistachios and dusted with icing sugar) are eaten, and there is a church procession (“shanineh”) of children, carrying candles decorated with ribbons and flowers, carried around the church on their parents’ shoulders.
In Jerusalem, being where the Easter story takes place, Holy Week is a major event. Large processions of up to 10,000 people—Palestinian guards, Franciscan monks, priest, and the devout—take place throughout the city on the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is said to be buried. There is also an Easter sunrise service at the Garden Tomb.
India: Beach Carnivals
In the beach state of Goa, on the west coast of India, Easter is a time for carnivals, dances, and street plays in this Indian state where ¼ of the people are Christian. Lanterns and crosses are also exchanged.
Philippines: Black-Veiled Mary, Angels, Self-Flagellation, and Crucifixion
Religious plays, processions, church pilgrimages, and chanting Christ’s passions are all common during Holy Week in this very religious country. In some communities, the processions even include devotees who flagellate themselves with blades and bamboo sticks or have themselves nailed to crosses as expressions of penance.
Holy Week begins in the Philippines with Palm Sunday where worshipers bring “palaspas” (palm fronds) to church to be blessed. Many Filipinos then place the palm leaves above their front doors or their windows to ward off evil spirits.
On Maundy Thursday, at mass, the feet of people who represent the apostles are washed. Afterwards, the faithful will often visit several churches where they pray in front of each church’s Altar of Repose.
Good Friday in the Philippines is commemorated with street processions and a passion play called the “sinakulo”.
On Black Saturday, an Easter Vigil, which is much longer than a regular church mass, is held. The ‘black’ is symbolic of death and mourning, and refers to the time when Jesus lay in his tomb.
Easter Sunday begins before dawn with two processions to the church: one with the men and a statue of Christ and the other with the women and a statue of Mother Mary covered in a black veil. When the two groups finally meet at the church, it symbolizes Christ meeting and consoling his mother after his resurrection. This tradition is called the Easter “salubong” (encounter or meeting). Here, little girls dressed as angels remove Mary’s black veil of mourning, and the procession changes into a festive one. After church mass, the mood changes, and it’s time for celebrating and feasting in the homes of friends, family, and neighbors.
Holy Monday marks the beginning of the “pabasa”, the marathon chanting of the story of Jesus’ life, passion, and death, which continues day and night, for up to 2 days.
Australia: Easter Bilbies
Down under, Easter bilbies are the animal of choice (instead of bunnies) for chocolate since the late 1960s. This is in order to bring awareness to the wildlife campaign of this endangered marsupial.