Maundy Thursday

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Maundy Thursday

(môn`dē) [Lat. mandatum, word in the ceremony], traditional English name for Thursday of Holy WeekHoly 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.
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, so named because it is considered the anniversary of the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper (that is, the mandatum novum or "new commandment"). In some churches, Jesus's washing of the disciples' feet is symbolically reenacted. In Great Britain there is a survival in the distribution by the sovereign of special "maundy money" to certain of the poor at Westminster Abbey. In the Roman Catholic Church, Maundy Thursday is a general communion day; a single Mass is sung, in the evening, and a Host, consecrated for the morrow, is placed in a specially adorned chapel of repose. The altars are stripped bare until the Easter vigil mass.
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Maundy Thursday

Clean Thursday, Great Thursday, Green Thursday,
Holy and Great Thursday, Holy Thursday, Red Thursday,
Sharp Thursday, Sheer Thursday, Shrift Thursday,
Thursday of the Mystical Supper

Maundy Thursday falls during Holy Week, on the Thursday before Easter. It commemorates the events that occurred at the Last Supper, the last meal that Jesus ate with his followers before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. According to three of the four biblical accounts of this evening, the meal was a Passover supper. Many of the folk and religious customs associated with the day refer to the events that took place at this supper. Some scholars believe that the English word "maundy" comes from the Latin word mandatum, or commandment, which refers to the commandment Jesus gave to his followers during the Last Supper. Others believe that the word maundy came from the English custom whereby the king or queen distributed goods to poor people on this day in a basket known as a "maund."

The Last Supper

Jesus shared the Last Supper with twelve of his most devoted followers (called the disciples or apostles): Peter, John, Matthew, James (son of Zebedee), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas. At the Last Supper Jesus did more than just share a meal with his followers, however. He left them with several last teachings. The first concerned the meaning of his upcoming death. Jesus gave them this teaching in a symbolic way. He took bread, asked for God's blessing, and broke it, distributing it among his disciples. He told him that the bread was his body. Then he passed them a cup of wine, identifying it as his blood, and asked them to drink it (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:16-19). In keeping with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the early Christians interpreted Jesus' words and deeds at the Last Supper in terms of the Passover themes of sacrifice, redemption, and salvation. What's more, they identified Jesus' death as a sacrifice made for their sakes in order to cleanse them of their sins and open the door to a new kind of relationship with God. They created a ceremony called the Eucharist as a way of commemorating Jesus' sacrifice and as a way of inviting others to participate in the bread and wine of the Last Supper. The Eucharist became the most important ritual in Christian communal worship.

Because it commemorates the Last Supper, Maundy Thursday is sometimes called the "birthday of the Eucharist." Orthodox Christians sometimes refer to Maundy Thursday as "Holy and Great Thursday of the Mystical Supper." They also refer to it simply as "Holy and Great Thursday," "Holy Thursday," or "Great Thursday."

After breaking bread with his followers Jesus gave them a commandment and set them a powerful example of how to behave towards one another. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus declares:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35). Jesus demonstrated the kind of love and service he wanted his disciples to offer one another by washing their feet (see also Footwashing). Afterwards he explained:

"Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them." (John 13:12-17)

Jesus' Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane

After supper Jesus and his disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane, located across the Kidron Valley on the Mount of Olives. There, while his followers slept, Jesus prayed to God about the future that he foresaw. He asked God to take away the suffering that he was about to endure (see Good Friday). In spite of his own desire to escape harm, he ended his prayer by affirming his willingness to carry out God's will, whatever that might be. Shortly thereafter, Jesus was arrested by a band of armed men, led to the Garden of Gethsemane by Jesus' disciple Judas, who identified Jesus to the mob by kissing him on the cheek.

Early History

Historical records reveal that as far back as the fourth century Christians celebrated Maundy Thursday with elaborate ceremonies. According to Egeria, a fourth-century Spanish nun who kept a diary concerning her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Jerusalem Christians honored the day with three distinct religious services. They celebrated the Eucharist twice during the afternoon. The first service officially closed the Lenten fast and the second commemorated the Last Supper. Later that evening the Christian community reassembled again outside Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives to begin a late-night service remembering again Christ's words at the Last Supper, his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane and his arrest and trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. This service took place in stages as the congregation made its way back to Jerusalem, stopping for Bible readings at sites along the way where key events in the story took place (for more on this service, see Royal Hours).

The Orthodox churches of the Christian East inherited the tradition of this late-night service and procession. Orthodox Christians living outside of Jerusalem, however, replaced the procession with a lengthy church service. Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christians, found mainly in eastern Europe and the countries surrounding the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea, maintain customs and rituals distinct from those of Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants. During the days of the predominantly Orthodox Byzantine Empire (330-1453), the emperor himself used to attend this late-night church service in the cathedral of Constantinople, a city now known as Istanbul, Turkey. For that reason the service became known as the Royal Hours. Today most Orthodox churches offer this service on the morning of Good Friday. The service consists of selections from the Bible describing Jesus' last days on earth, usually referred to as the Passion. These are divided up into twelve chapters and are either read or sung, accompanied by prayers, hymns, and other texts.

In western Europe the religious customs and traditions of Rome exercised far more influence than those of Jerusalem. By the fourth century, Roman Christians celebrated Maundy Thursday with a ceremony devoted to the reconciliation of penitents (see also Repentance). This process began about six weeks earlier. Those who had committed what were considered serious offences in the Christian community confessed these deeds publicly at church services that marked the beginning of Lent (see also Ash Wednesday). They spent the Lenten season completing the religious exercises and enduring the hardships assigned to them to cleanse them of their sins and renew their devotion to God. They were forbidden to attend church again until Maundy Thursday. They reappeared on that day to participate in the religious ceremony whereby penitents were reconciled with the church. After kneeling in the doorway of the church for the first part of the service, they were eventually permitted to approach the bishop or priest to receive forgiveness for their sins. After the service they retired to bathe and shave, since these activities had been forbidden them during Lent. The ceremony of reconciliation marked the end of the Lenten season. Indeed, Maundy Thursday was viewed as the last day of Lent rather than the first day of the Triduum throughout the Middle Ages.

In the days of the early church, when many adults were baptized at Easter time, candidates for baptism were expected to appear before the bishop or his representative on Maundy Thursday and recite the Creed, a summary of Christian doctrine. In Rome church officials transferred this custom to Holy Saturday. This recitation proved that they had been sufficiently instructed in the Christian faith and were ready for baptism. This custom disappeared as infant baptisms gradually replaced those of adult converts. Nevertheless, in Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, special oils used in baptismal ceremonies are still consecrated on Maundy Thursday, an echo of the day's ancient ties to the preparation of baptismal candidates.

Medieval History

Long after public confessions and reconciliations of the kind described above had been abandoned, ordinary people carried on the tradition of bathing and cleaning their clothes on Maundy Thursday. People called the day "Clean Thursday" in reference to these customary Easter preparations. In times past bathing and cleaning one's clothes were more difficult, time-consuming tasks than they are today and therefore these tasks were undertaken less frequently. In recognition of the special exertions involved, the church granted some exemptions from the strict Lenten fasting rules on this day. In fourteenth-century England men also shaved and trimmed their beards on Maundy Thursday. Hence people dubbed it "Sheer," "Shrift," or "Sharp" Thursday. The custom of bathing, shaving, and washing on Maundy Thursday in preparation for Easter faded over time. Nevertheless, in some places Maundy Thursday still serves as a day on which to wash altar cloths and clean the church in preparation for Easter. In German-speaking countries folk tradition renamed Maundy Thursday "Green Thursday." Researchers have come up with several explanations for this name. One theory traces it back to the reconciliation of penitents that used to take place on this day. The penitents carried green branches as a sign of their joy. Indeed, Dies viridium, an old Latin name for the day which means "Day of the Green Ones," came from this custom. In the symbolic code of the western European church, green represents hope and victory. The green twig in particular symbolizes a long struggle crowned by victory (see also Palm Sunday). Until the thirteenth century priests wore green vestments on Maundy Thursday. Today two liturgical colors are used in Maundy Thursday services. Before the Eucharist priests wear red vestments, symbolizing the suffering love that sustains martyrdom. For the Eucharist itself priests change to white robes, representing joy, in this case, the joy inspired by the gift of the Eucharist.

Another theory concerning the origins of the name "Green Thursday" suggests that it evolved from an older name, "Mourning Thursday." The two names are not as far apart in German as they are in English since the German word for mourning is grunen and the German word for green is grün.

Contemporary Church Customs

Although some old religious customs associated with the day have been abandoned, others remain. Still more have been added in recent times. For example, many Roman Catholic and Anglican churches and religious institutions offer footwashing ceremonies on Maundy Thursday. These ceremonies date back to the seventh century, but were inspired by the words and deeds of Jesus himself as recorded in the Bible. The ritual offers participants the opportunity to give and receive the kind of humble love and service that Jesus gave to his followers. In these ceremonies a member of the clergy washes the feet of people in the community or congregation. In some Christian denominations clergy members wash the feet of all who wish to participate in the ceremony. In another variation of this ceremony a priest bathes the feet of twelve boys or men. Seated in a half circle around the priest, the boys and men represent Jesus'twelve apostles. In some places folk dramas amplify the religious ritual. Each year the Greek town of Patmos stages a folk play dramatizing the washing of the disciples' feet. Participants stage the play, titled Niptir, or "Washing," in the town square.

Many Protestant churches celebrate the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday. Some hold special "Upper Room" services on this day. Parishioners eat a meal composed of many foods that Jesus and his disciples may have included in their Passover meal. They eat in silence, while listening to readings from the Bible. The name given to this service refers to the place where Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples, described in the Bible simply as an "upper room."

According to an old church custom dating back to the eighth century, bells ring for the last time before Easter on Maundy Thursday. In the absence of the bells the beginning and ending of religious services and devotions were announced by the sounding of a wooden clapper board, an ancient device used in churches before the introduction of bells in the fifth century. In the Catholic countries of Europe the sudden silence of the church bells puzzled children. Adults often told them that the bells had flown off to Rome to visit the pope and spend the night at St. Peter's before returning on Easter morning. French parents even hinted that it was the returning bells that brought children their Easter eggs.

In some churches the altar is ceremonially stripped of all its cloth coverings at the end of Maundy Thursday services. Other cloth hangings are also removed. This stripping leaves the church with a stark appearance, thus preparing it for the mournful services that take place the following day on Good Friday. It also gives those in charge of cleaning and decorating the church an opportunity to wash everything thoroughly in preparation for Easter. This custom fits well with the day's nickname, "Clean Thursday," although most writers believe that this name came about from an old tradition encouraging people to bathe and clean their clothes on Maundy Thursday in preparation for Easter. In the Middle Ages the floors and walls of the church were scrubbed on Maundy Thursday. Moreover, altar tables were ceremonially washed with water and wine, an act that symbolized Christ's blood washing the world clean from sin.

In Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals holy oil that will be used in the coming year is blessed at a special service on Maundy Thursday. Clergy members use this oil for special religious services, including baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, and for anointing the dying and those in ill health. The blessing of holy oil on Maundy Thursday can be traced back to the fifth century.

Orthodox Maundy Thursday services commemorate the Last Supper and Jesus'command to his disciples that they love one another. Since Orthodoxy follows the ancient Jewish custom of reckoning the start of each new day at sunset, their Maundy Thursday services begin on Wednesday evening. In some Orthodox churches Wednesday evening services are accompanied by the anointing of the sick, a ceremony in which priests pray over persons seeking physical and spiritual healing, and anoint them with holy oil.

Beginning of the Triduum

Maundy Thursday begins the Triduum, the last three days of Holy Week. Although many reckon the Triduum simply as the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday that precedes Easter, technically the Triduum begins on the evening of Maundy Thursday and continues through the daylight hours of Easter Sunday. Tenebrae services, an ancient monastic ceremony of psalms, chants, Bible readings, and hymns, may be offered during the Triduum in Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches.

Special Altars

Roman Catholics have long maintained a tradition whereby a portion of the Eucharist prepared on Maundy Thursday is venerated and preserved for use on the following day. In the past great ceremony and elaborate decorations attended this devotion. At the end of the mass the priest reverently placed the consecrated host in a special container (for more on the Roman Catholic religious service known as the mass, see Eucharist). Then followed a solemn procession to a specially decorated corner of the church, called a "repository" or the "altar of repose," where the container would be displayed.

In Latin American and southern European countries the container was placed at a great height, often with the use of a special scaffolding. Then the scaffolding was decorated with candles, lilies, orchids, palms, and other suitable materials. Latin Americans and southern Europeans call these displays monumentos, or "tombs," a reference to Jesus'upcoming death. In other European countries the repository was adorned with gold, silver, jewels, flowers, candles, and images of angels, and was called a "sepulchre," "throne," "paradise," or "garden." In the Middle Ages one devotional practice urged people to visit and offer prayers before seven monumenti on the evening of Maundy Thursday. Some contemporary Roman Catholics carry on the practice of visiting as many altars of repose as possible on Maundy Thursday. Today the displays surrounding the altar of repose are apt to be less elaborate than those of previous generations. Roman Catholic officials discourage worshipers from referring to these decorated repositories as "tombs," since the commemoration of Jesus'death and burial will not come until the following day, Good Friday (see also Holy Sepulchre).

Other Customs Associated with the Day

Many Greeks dye their Easter eggs on this day. Only bright red dye is used, representing the blood of Christ (for more on egg symbolism in Orthodoxy, see Mary Magdalene). In reference to these eggs Greeks have nicknamed the day "Red Thursday." Another Greek custom associated with the day is the cleaning of the home ikonostasi, a shelf or niche where the family keeps devotional materials such as icons, religious images used in prayer and worship, incense, blessed palms from Palm Sunday, a Bible, and a cross. Often families keep a red Easter egg in the ikonostasi throughout the year. The Easter eggs, palm crosses, and other seasonal material from the previous year are disposed of on Holy Thursday (see also Greece, Easter and Holy Week in). In central Europe folk customs encouraged the eating of green foods on Green Thursday. Spinach, kale, leeks, green salads, and soups made with green vegetables or herbs are especially popular on this day. This custom is carried out in some Slavic countries as well. It can also be found among the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose ancestors immigrated to the United States from Germany and Switzerland.


The Eucharist serves as an important religious symbol of Maundy Thursday. Blessed bread and wine, the gifts of the Eucharist, may also represent the holiday.

In Roman Catholic churches, as well as those Protestant churches that observe liturgical colors, priests wear red robes at the start of Maundy Thursday services. Liturgical colors govern the changing hues of clerical robes and other church decorations throughout the year. In the liturgical color scheme red represents love and suffering. At the celebration of the Eucharist the priest changes to white robes, symbolizing joy. This switch reflects the honor given to Maundy Thursday as the birthday of the Eucharist and the joy with which Christians receive this gift from Christ.

Further Reading

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. Cowie, L. W., and John Selwyn Gummer. The Christian Calendar. Springfield, MA: G. and C. Merriam, 1974. Leclerq, H. "Maundy Thursday." In Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Appleton, 1913. Available online at: Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter Garland. 1963. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1999. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Myers, Robert J. Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1972. Niemann, Paul J. The Lent, Triduum, and Easter Answer Book. San Jose, CA: Resource Publications, 1998. 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. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. 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

Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: Between March 19 and April 22 in the West; between April 1 and May 5 in the East; Thursday before Easter
Where Celebrated: England, Europe, United States, South America, and throughout the Christian world
Symbols and Customs: Blessing the Oils, Foot Washing, Maundy Money, Silencing the Bells
Colors: The liturgical color for this day is white, the symbol of joy.
Related Holidays: Corpus Christi, Easter, Good Friday, Passover


Maundy Thursday is part of the religious tradition of Christianity. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions.There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

The day before GOOD FRIDAY has been observed since very early times with acts of humility in imitation of Jesus Christ, who washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. The name "Maundy" probably came from the Latin mandatum, meaning "commandment." After the FOOT WASHING took place, Christ said, "A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John 13:34) Some say that "Maundy" came from an old word meaning "basket" in England, where the poor used baskets to carry the food and money distributed to them on this day (see MAUNDY MONEY ).

The real significance of Maundy Thursday lies in the fact that it was the day of the Last Supper, when Jesus and his twelve apostles gathered to share the traditional Passover meal, as many others were doing all over Jerusalem. Jesus took the bread and the wine and described them in symbolic terms as his body and his blood, thus instituting the ceremony known as the Eucharist. He was trying to tell his disciples that just as the Jews had been saved from bondage in Egypt by the blood of a lamb smeared on their doors (see PASSOVER), all of mankind would be saved from the bondage of sin by the sacrifice he was about to make. He wanted his disciples to use this ceremony as a pattern for a memorial service they could hold later in his memory.

In some western European countries, the Thursday before EASTER is called Green Thursday. In Germany it's called Gründonnerstag, a name that is thought to have derived from grunen or greinen, meaning "to mourn," later corrupted into grün (green). In Austria and Hungary, it is customary to eat spinach and green salad on this day- perhaps because the Jews ate green vegetables or herbs at their Passover feast.

At one time, this day was known as Pure or Clean Thursday, from the ancient tradition of cleansing the soul as well as the body in preparation for Easter. The Old English name Shere (or Shier) Thursday referred to the practice of men shaving their beards on this day.


Blessing the Oils

The ceremony performed on the morning of Maundy Thursday and known as the Blessing of the Oils takes place at St. Peter's in Rome and in cathedrals elsewhere. It dates back to an ancient rite, the renewal of the supply of oils used to anoint people who are baptized at EASTER. There are actually three types of oils that are blessed: (1) the oil of catechumens, used in baptizing people, consecrating churches, ordaining priests, and crowning sovereigns; (2) the oil used in administering extreme unction to those who are dying; and (3) the oil of chrism, used in confirmation, the consecration of bishops, and the blessing of bells. These oils are kept in a chrismatory or casket made of silver or brass. Maundy Thursday

Two of the oils blessed on Maundy Thursday are actually olive oil. But the chrism is an ointment based on olive oil to which balsam or a perfume has been added, symbolizing "the sweet savor of Christ." In the morning service, the bishop not only blesses the oils but invites his priests to renew their commitment to their calling.

Foot Washing

The act of washing someone's feet was a courtesy offered to a guest and usually performed by a female servant, or by the women of the family if there were no servants. When Jesus washed the feet of his twelve disciples at the Last Supper, it was more than a dramatic gesture on the eve of his crucifixion: he was teaching them that by humbling themselves, they could show their love for one another.

Foot washing has been a Maundy Thursday custom since the early days of the Church. Bishops, abbots, prelates, and other religious officials participated in the ceremony, as did the popes. In medieval times-and in some countries up to the present century-Christian emperors, kings, and lords washed the feet of poor men on Holy Thursday, after which they were given money and provided with a meal. The king of England used to have poor men brought to him-one man for each year of his age. Then he washed their feet and gave them food, money, and clothing. The last British monarch to perform the foot-washing ceremony was James II (1685-88). Today, British rulers attend a special Maundy Thursday service and distribute MAUNDY MONEY to the poor afterward.

At St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, it used to be the custom for the Pope to wash the feet of subdeacons on Maundy Thursday. He no longer takes part in the ceremony, which is performed at the Church of the Ara Caeli. The biblical account of the event is chanted and then the bishop, who wears a linen cloth at his waist, kneels to wash the right foot of each of the thirteen men selected for the occasion. Twelve of them represent the apostles and the thirteenth represents the angel who, according to legend, appeared to Gregory the Great when he was performing an act of charity on this day in the late sixth century. Some say the thirteenth man represents St. Matthias, who replaced Judas Iscariot after he betrayed Jesus.

Some Roman Catholic churches still carry out the foot-washing ceremony on the Thursday preceding Easter. It symbolizes Jesus' commandment that his followers show humility.

Maundy Money

At one time in England, the king would have as many men brought before him as he was years old. Then he would wash their feet with his own hands and distribute maunds, which consisted of meat, clothing, and money. Queen Elizabeth in 1572 gave each person enough cloth for a gown, half a side of salmon, six red herring, bread, and wine. In 1838 Queen Victoria gave out woolen and linen clothing, shoes and stockings, and new coins minted specially for the occasion, which were referred to as "Maundy money."

Today, it is the Archbishop of Canterbury who distributes the Maundy money, which is carried into London's Westminster Abbey on a huge platter by the Yeoman of the Guard. The Archbishop and the Dean of Westminster wear only plain white instead of their usual elaborate robes, and they carry linen towels on their shoulders to commemorate the FOOT WASHING ceremony, which is no longer performed. The Maundy money, contained in red and white purses, consists of specially minted silver coins that total in value the monarch's age. Although they are considered legal tender, most recipients keep the coins as souvenirs.

England is one of very few countries where the ancient custom of distributing royal Maundy gifts is still continued.

Silencing the Bells

There is a universal legend among children that all the church bells "fly to Rome" after the Gloria of the Mass is sung on Holy Thursday. In Germany and central Europe, children are told that the bells make a pilgrimage to the tomb of the apostles, or that they go to the pope to be blessed and then sleep on the roof of St. Peter's Cathedral until Easter. In France, they are told that the bells fly to Rome to fetch the Easter eggs.

Whatever the reason for their departure, the silencing of the bells after the Gloria on Maundy Thursday has produced the popular expression that "the bells have gone to Rome" and will return after the Gloria is sung on Holy Saturday. Children run through the streets shaking various types of rattles and clappers to communicate the great sorrow associated with this period. In rural parts of Austria, boys with wooden clappers go through the villages announcing the time, because even the church clock is stopped.

After the Holy Thursday Mass is sung in Rome's Sistine Chapel, no bells are allowed to ring in the city until the following Saturday morning. This means that all the bells in Rome are silent from about 11:30 a.m. Thursday until the same time on Holy Saturday. Even the hand-held bells used to summon hotel guests to dinner are silent, although occasionally wooden clappers are used instead. Since the ringing of bells symbolizes a joyous event, their silence is an appropriate symbol for the sorrow associated with Jesus' suffering and death on the cross.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Maundy Thursday

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New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Maundy Thursday

Between March 19 and April 22 in West and between April 1 and May 5 in East; Thursday before Easter
Also known as Green Thursday in Germany from the practice of giving a green branch to penitents as a sign that their penance was completed; Shere or Sheer Thursday, meaning "free from guilt"; Paschal Thursday, Passion Thursday, or Holy Thursday, it is the day preceding Good Friday.
It commemorates Jesus' institution of the Eucharist during the Last Supper, celebrated by Christians since the middle of the fourth century. The practice of ceremonial footwashing in imitation of Jesus, who washed his disciples' feet before the Last Supper as a sign and example of humility and love, has been largely discontinued in Protestant churches. However, the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion still celebrate the rites of Maundy Thursday, which may include handing out special coins known as "Maundy money" to the aged and the poor, instead of footwashing. Also on this day, the sacramental Holy Oils, or chrism, are blessed.
The name "Maundy" probably comes from the Latin mandatum, or "commandment," referring to Jesus' words after he washed the feet of his disciples: "A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34).
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 235
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EncyEaster-2002, p. 386
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FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 167
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 244
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Celebrated in: Denmark, Guatemala, Honduras, Iceland, Norway, Philippines, Uruguay, Venezuela

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