Holy Week

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Holy Week

Holy Week, week before Easter. Its chief days are named Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. In Christian life it is a week of devout observance, commemorating the Passion and Jesus' death on the cross. The liturgies have special features and services, e.g., Tenebrae. In the Roman Catholic Church these rise to a climax with the vigil of the Resurrection on the evening of Holy Saturday. At this time the paschal candle is blessed with the hymn Exsultet, and Lent, with its fast, ends at midnight.
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Holy Week

Great Week, Holy and Great Week, Laborious Week,
Palm Week, Paschal Week, Passion Week, Six Days of
Pascha, Week of Lamentation, Week of Passion,
Week of Remission, Week of Salvation

Holy Week falls the week before Easter. It lasts from Palm Sunday, the Sunday preceding Easter, to the following Saturday, known as Holy Saturday. During these seven days Christians commemorate the Passion, that is, the events that took place during the last days of Jesus' life. In those Christian denominations with strong liturgical traditions this week brings together some of the most thematically important services of the year. These services prepare worshipers to celebrate the most important festival of the year, Easter. In Roman Catholic churches, as well as in those Protestant churches that observe liturgical colors, priests wear red robes during Holy Week services. The color red symbolizes love and suffering, such as that displayed by Jesus in the Passion story.


The first historical reference to any kind of observance of Holy Week dates back to the third century. An old document from this era records the fact that certain Christian communities prepared for Easter by fasting during the week that preceded it. From the Monday after Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday they ate only bread, salt, and water. On Good Friday and Holy Saturday, they abstained entirely from food, spending most of the day praying and reading the Bible.

By the fourth century historical evidence points to a more widespread observance of Holy Week. Around the year 380 a Spanish nun named Egeria made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and recorded her experiences in her diary. Her writings tells us that by the late fourth century Jerusalem Christians had begun to observe Holy Week by commemorating the events that transpired during the last week of Jesus' life. In this way they attempted to relive the events leading up to Jesus'death as a preparation for celebrating his resurrection.

On Palm Sunday they recalled Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. On the following Wednesday church services reminded the faithful of Judas' arrangement with the religious authorities to betray Jesus (see also Spy Wednesday). On the next day, Maundy Thursday, various religious observances commemorated the Last Supper and Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Good Friday was devoted to the remembrance of the Crucifixion (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). A late-night Easter Vigil service commemorating the Resurrection took place on Holy Saturday. Although Egeria tells us little about the Jerusalem vigil service, other sources confirm that by the late fourth century the baptism of new Christians had already become an important element of this service. Today's Holy Week observances commemorate the same events on the same days. Thus, by the end of the fourth century the outlines of Holy Week as we know it today were already in place.

Although for many years most scholars assumed that Holy Week celebrations evolved in Jerusalem, some now think that certain observances were imported from elsewhere. These scholars suspect that Christian communities in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, the capital of Turkey), and Alexandria, Egypt, were the first to celebrate Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. They argue that pilgrims from these communities imported these festivals to Jerusalem. The Jerusalem community eventually adopted and combined them with services occurring during the latter part of Holy Week, giving rise to the sequence of rites that are familiar to us today.

In ancient times Holy Week observances varied from place to place. This variation continued into the Middle Ages, although the passing of time gradually brought with it increasing uniformity. It also inspired the invention of new devotional practices, such as footwashing on Maundy Thursday, and new folk customs, such as the baking and eating of hot cross buns on Good Friday. Over time certain ancient traditions disappeared in many places as well, including the pardoning of prisoners, a custom once practiced by some medieval monarchs. In spite of these additions and occasional subtractions, the religious themes associated with the days of Holy Week have remained fairly stable since early Christian times.

Orthodox Services

Orthodox Holy Week services differ slightly from those of Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants. Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity developed in eastern Europe and the countries surrounding the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea. Most members of this ancient faith tradition still hail from these eastern countries, although nowadays Orthodox Christian communities can also be found in the West and include members from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. Orthodox Christians follow a different church calendar than that commonly adhered to by Western Christians (see also Easter, Date of). Therefore Orthodox and Western Christians often celebrate Holy Week at different times.

During the first half of Holy Week Orthodox church services emphasize the theme of judgment and the Second Coming of Christ. Western Christians meditate on these concepts during Advent, the fourweek season of the church year that precedes Christmas. In Orthodox churches, vespers (evening) services during the first three days of Holy Week advise worshipers to live each day according to God's teachings since no one knows when judgment, or Christ, will come. These ceremonies are known as the "bridegroom services" in reference to the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13), a Bible passage featured in these services. Scholars of Orthodoxy trace this thematic development back to the ancient Christian belief that the Second Coming of Christ would occur at Easter time, most probably during the vigil service.


Over the centuries Holy Week acquired a variety of names. In early Christian times some called it the "six days of Pascha," others called it the "Paschal Week," and still others "Great Week" or the "Week of Passion." Another old name for the observance, the "Week of Remission," referred to the ancient Maundy Thursday rite of conferring forgiveness on those undergoing public penance for their sins (for more on penance, see Repentance). Laborious Week, a reference to the fasting and other religious disciplines practiced during this period, constituted yet another old name for the festival. In medieval England it was known as "Palm Week" and, later, "Passion Week." The Germans dubbed this period of time Karwoche, or "Week of Lamentation." Spanish, French, and Italian speakers know this seven-day period as "Holy Week," a name also popular in the United States. Orthodox Christians favor "Great Week," "Holy and Great Week," or the "Week of Salvation." For more on Holy Week customs and observances, see also Alleluia; Baptism; Bells; Cross; Epitaphios; Easter Fires; Easter Vigil; Fasting; Footwashing; Descent into Hell; Holy Sepulchre; Hot Cross Buns; Judas, Burning of; Mary, Blessed Virgin; Mary Magdalene; Palm; Passion Play; Penitentes; Peter; Pilate, Pontius; Royal Hours; Stations of the Cross; Tenebrae; Three Hours; Triduum; Veiling; Veneration of the Cross; Veronica

Further Reading

Bradshaw, Paul F. The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Davies, J. G. "The Origins of Holy Week and Its Development in the Middle Ages." In C. P. M. Jones, ed. A Manual for Holy Week. London, England: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1967. "Holy Week." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. O'Shea, W. J. "Holy Week." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 7. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Pierce, Joanne M. "Holy Week and Easter in the Middle Ages." In Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times. Two Liturgical Traditions series, volume 5. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1986. Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Holy Week

Between March 15 and April 18 in the West and between March 28 and May 1 in the East; the week preceding Easter
Holy Week, the seven days beginning with Palm Sunday that precede Easter, is the most solemn week in the Christian year. It includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The Germans call Holy Week Still Week or Silent Week, and some Americans call it Passion Week, although the season known as Passiontide actually refers to the preceding week.
Passion Sunday or Carling Sunday is the fifth Sunday in Lent (the Sunday before Palm Sunday), but since Holy Week was also referred to as Passion Week, this apparently led to the identification of Palm Sunday with Passion Sunday. Since 1970 the Roman Catholic Church has considered the two names to be synonymous, although in 1956 the two Sundays were designated the First Sunday and Second Sunday of the Passion. Another name for the fifth Sunday in Lent is Judica Sunday, from the Introit for the day.
See also Prisoners, Feast of the; Semana Santa in Guatemala
Orthodox Church in America
P.O. Box 675
Syosset, NY 11791
516-922-0550; fax: 516-922-0954
BkFest-1937, pp. 69, 274
BkFestHolWrld-1970, pp. 51, 53, 54
DaysCustFaith-1957, pp. 103, 106
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 1063, 1171
EncyEaster-2002, p. 294
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, p. 439
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 67
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 164, 192
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 224
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 65
IntlThFolk-1979, p. 276
OxYear-1999, p. 615

Celebrated in: Czech Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Panama, Philippines, Portugal

Holy Week (Czech Republic)
Between March 15 and April 18; the week preceding Easter
In the Czech Republic, each day of Holy Week is associated with traditional customs that combine pagan rituals with those commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The first day of the week, Palm Sunday, also known as Flower Sunday, commemorates the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. On this day priests bless branches, flowers, and wood that have been brought to church by the congregation. Czech farmers make crosses from the blessed materials and place the crosses in their fields in hopes of a bountiful harvest.
During Holy Week, Czechs undertake spring-cleaning of their homes and may even paint them in an effort to refresh their surroundings after the winter. Chimneys are swept and furniture and bedding aired outside. S karedá streda (Ugly Wednesday) is also known as Spy Wednesday in reference to the tradition that it was the day on which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities. Thursday of Holy Week, known as Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday in the English-speaking world, is called Zelený ctvrtek (Green Thursday) in the Czech Republic. On this day Czechs traditionally eat a meal featuring green herbs and vegetables. In the past, children would be sent outside in the morning to bathe in a stream or river, then return home to eat jidasky, a pastry shaped into a rope. The braided form of this cake refers to the noose and symbolizes the hanging death of Judas. Spreading jidasky or another bread with honey was believed to offer protection from snakebites throughout the year, and bread with honey was also tossed into wells to assure that they would not run dry during the coming year. Church bells are silenced on Green Thursday and replaced in villages by noisemakers such as wooden rattles. On Good Friday Czech custom calls for wading across a stream barelegged in order to assure good health. In addition, the weather on this day is believed to portend the weather for the rest of the year.
Saturday of Holy Week is known as White Saturday in the Czech Republic and is considered a lucky day to sow seeds. The day concludes with an Easter Vigil religious service and the return of church bells. Preparations for Easter include decorating eggs ( kraslice ) using a variety of methods to create intricate, colorful designs. Typically, the egg white and yolk are removed before the egg is colored. Techniques for applying color include wax-resistance, painting, and scratching the designs onto dyed shells. Boys and young men weave wands from willow branches and decorate them with ribbons. On Easter Monday they use the whips to symbolically spank girls to promote their good health. In return the girls give them a decorated or chocolate egg.
Embassy of the Czech Republic
3900 Spring of Freedom St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-274-9100; fax: 202-966-8540
EncyEaster-2002, p. 73

Celebrated in: Czech Republic

Holy Week (Haiti)
Between March 15 and April 18; the week preceding Easter
Holy Week in Haiti is signaled by the appearance of "Monsieur Judas" effigies made out of sawdust and rags. Early in the week these symbolic figures are honored as Jesus' apostles and treasured guests. When Jesus' death is affirmed on Good Friday, however, the effigies disappear—usually hidden by someone in a ravine or cane field just outside town.
On Saturday morning everyone starts hunting for Judas, swinging machetes, knives, and clubs as they shout, "Qui bo' li?" (Where is he?). The search often becomes quite frenzied and every time a Judas is found, the attackers slice him to bits. By midday the remains of these effigies litter the ground. This ritual reenactment of Jesus' betrayal by Judas involves Haitians of all ages and reflects the overall tone of Holy Week celebrations, which are more secular than spiritual.
Embassy of the Republic of Haiti
2311 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-332-4090; fax: 202-745-7215
FiestaTime-1965, p. 79

Celebrated in: Haiti

Holy Week (Mexico)
Between March 15 and April 18; the week preceding Easter
Although many dramatizations of the events of Holy Week, or Semana Santa, take place throughout Mexico, the Passion plays performed in the towns of Taxco, Malinalco, Tzintzuntzan, and Iztapalapa are among the most elaborate. In Malinalco, everyone in town participates in the drama, with the wealthier men taking the parts of Roman soldiers (because they own horses) and less wealthy members of the community representing the Christians, who have no horses but wear brightly colored satin costumes. The young girls are dressed as angels, complete with wings that sparkle in the sunlight.
In Tzintzuntzan, the Passion play starts at 12:00 p.m. on Maundy Thursday and doesn't end until midnight on Good Friday. The play takes place outdoors, in a grove of olive trees near the church, and is known for the professionalism of its actors. The Iztapalapa pageant takes place during Holy Week, and there are several locations throughout the town where scenes are presented. It is best known for its elaborate costumes.
Mexicans are also known for the effigies of Judas that are displayed in the streets on Holy Saturday. Although some of these papier-mâchÉ effigies represent clowns, cowboys, devils, and pirates, the majority portray unpopular politicians or other citizens who have fallen out of public favor.
Mexico Tourism Board
21 E. 63rd St., Fl. 3
New York, NY 10021
800-446-3942 or 212-821-0314; fax: 212-821-0367
EncyEaster-2002, p. 406
FiestaTime-1965, pp. 77, 79

Celebrated in: Mexico

Holy Week (Panama)
Between March 15 and April 18; the week preceding Easter
In Panama, Holy Week is marked by the appearance of devil dancers who wear headdresses that resemble animals' heads and tails made from bells. They visit small villages on Holy Saturday to get rid of evil spirits for the coming year. In larger towns, they participate in public, staged combat with festival participants in angel costumes. Although the devil can be seen as a biblical character, the purifying rites performed by the devil dancers in rural areas probably originate in indigenous traditions.
Embassy of Panama
2862 McGill Terr. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-483-1407; fax: 202-483-8413
FiestaTime-1965, p. 82

Celebrated in: Panama

Holy Week (Philippines)
Between March 15 and April 18; the week preceding Easter
Colorful Passion plays take place throughout Lent in the Philippines ( see Moriones Festival). Palm Sunday religious services focus on the joy of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and include the blessing of palm branches. Some people visit as many churches as possible on Maundy Thursday, in a custom known as visita iglesia (visit church). Retelling or singing the Passion story is also popular on this day. On Good Friday devout Filipinos watch Passion plays, take part in a devotional meditation known as the Stations of the Cross, or participate in public processions of penitents. In some of these, people whip themselves; in others a few people each year will have themselves crucified.
A custom known as Salubong, the meeting of the resurrected Jesus and his mother, takes place on Easter Sunday morning. A religious statue representing Jesus and another representing the Blessed Virgin Mary are taken to the opposite ends of town. People line up behind one or the other image and begin a procession towards a centrally located church. When the two images meet, a children's choir begin to sing, the veil covering Mary's eyes falls away, and a flock of doves is released. Afterwards the images are returned to the church and people attend Easter Sunday mass.
Philippine Tourism Center
556 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10036
212-575-7915; fax: 212-302-6759
EncyEaster-2002, p. 491
FestWrld: Phil-1999, p. 12

Celebrated in: Philippines

Holy Week (Portugal) (Semana Santa)
Between March 15 and April 18; the week preceding Easter
There are exhibits in the churches and street processions illustrating scenes from the Passion of Christ throughout Holy Week in Portugal. In the city of Guimarães, the church of Senhor dos Passos shows a different Passion tableau each day of Holy Week. The processions are usually attended by bands of anjinhos, or children dressed as angels, with crowns on their heads and fluffy wings attached to their shoulders. The figures of Jesus, which have real hair, eyelashes, and crystal tears, are elaborately dressed in purple velvet robes. The clergy's vestments are also purple, and worshippers watching the procession throw violets at the image of the suffering Jesus.
Portuguese National Tourist Office
590 Fifth Ave., 4th Fl.
New York, NY 10036
800-767-8842 or 212-354-4403; fax: 212-764-6137
FestWestEur-1958, p. 164

Celebrated in: Portugal

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.

Holy Week

the week preceding Easter Sunday
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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