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Special Days of Easter

Lent Ash Wednesday Palm Sunday
Maundy Thursday Good Friday Easter Sunday


   The Christian celebration-of Easter is really a season of special days pointing to the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As people from many lands became believers in Christ, they each added unique touches to this season called Lent.
Lent is a period of fasting, or doing without certain foods. Not counting Sundays, Lent is the forty days before Easter. Many Christians fast during this time to remind themselves of the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness.
Several countries have celebrations just before Lent begins. In England, Shrove Tuesday is the name given to the last day before Lent. On this day, many people make pancakes in order to use up all their eggs, butter, and milk before it is time to fast.
In other countries, the last few days before Lent are filled with parties, masquerade balls, parades, festivals, and in some places, fireworks displays. This period of celebration is often called Carnival. In Europe, Carnival is held in Norway, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, and Greece. Carnival is also held in almost all of the countries in Central and South America, as well as in the islands of the Caribbean and in Cuba.
In the United States, Carnival is held in very few places; among those the most famous is in New Orleans, Louisiana. The French settled New Orleans, and in their language, Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday." Their Carnival begins six days before Lent and ends with a Mardi Gras festival involving tens of thousands of people and a parade of colorful floats, bands, and marching units.

Ash Wednesday

   Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. On this day, many Christian churches have a special service of prayer, during which the priest or minister may sprinkle ashes upon the heads of the people or make a small cross of ashes on the forehead of each worshipper.
On Ash Wednesday in many countries, people make and eat pretzels. The word pretzel comes from a Latin word meaning "little arms." The shape of the twisted pretzel is meant to remind people of arms folded in prayer.

Palm Sunday

   Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. On this day, early Christians carried palm branches to church remembering how Jesus was welcomed to Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday.
Since medieval times, palm leaves have been twisted into cross shapes and given to Christian worshipers on Palm Sunday. On the Ash Wednesday of the following year, these shapes are brought back to church, burned to ash, and used by priests during church services. Palm leaves are also used in Jewish services during Passover.
The Latin American countries often have huge parades on Palm Sunday, featuring tall statues of Jesus and Mary which are sometimes so heavy that it takes dozens of men to carry each one!
In many countries, palm branches are used to decorate churches. In countries where palms are not available, willow, myrtle, bay, pussywillow, olive, or boxwood branches are used instead. Children in Austria hang pretzels on their palm branches. And in Finland, children used to cut willow branches early on Palm Sunday and lightly switch the women in their neighborhood for good luck!

Maundy Thursday

   The Thursday before Easter is called Maundy Thursday. The name Maundy comes from a Latin word which means command. It refers to the new commandment Jesus gave his disciples on the Thursday before he was crucified. On that night long ago, he served their Last Supper of bread and wine, washed his disciples' feet, and said,

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." John 13:34

As a reminder of these things, Christians often re-enact the acts of foot washing and serving communion on Maundy Thursday.
During the Middle Ages, people rang church bells all during Maundy Thursday services, and then silenced the bells until Easter Eve. Spring cleaning, a custom associated with the return of warmer weather, pre-dates Christ, but is another tradition adopted by Christians and practiced on Maundy Thursday. In preparation for Easter Sunday, people of long ago spent this day washing and sweeping their homes and carefully cleaning their bodies as well. In Russian it called "Clean Thursday"
Another interesting custom traced to the Middle Ages is the wearing of green and eating of only green foods on this day. For this reason, it is still called "Green Thursday" in many parts of Europe, and salads and greens are a favorite menu. In Austria, people use and eat only green eggs on this day!

Good Friday

   Good Friday used to be called God's Friday because it was the day Jesus was crucified. This is the most solemn day of the year for Christians as they recall the suffering and death of Jesus.
In past times, there were many superstitions connected with Good Friday.
Miners were afraid to go down into the mines because they thought the earth was cursed on that day when Jesus was laid in the tomb.
Blacksmiths refused to pound a nail because nails were used in the crucifixion.
And many housewives thought it was bad luck to wash clothes on Good Friday because Christ had been wrapped in linen cloths on this day.
Farmers, however, believed seeds planted on Good Friday would yield wonderful crops.
Some people collected water in containers on this day because they thought it could cure eye diseases!
The Bible says that when Jesus hung on the cross, the sky became dark from noon until three o'clock in the afternoon. Long ago, Christians held quiet church services during these three hours on Good Friday. Statues and pictures of Christ were draped in black cloth and prayers were offered for forgiveness of sins.
The special devotion called the "Stations of the Cross" was started during the Crusades six hundred years ago. Pictures or statues were placed along a city street. Each one was called a "station" and showed a different part of Christ's trial, death, or burial. Christians walked from station to station, reciting prayers at each one.
Today many Protestant and Catholic churches hold Good Friday services from noon until three, and almost all Catholic churches are decorated with pictures or statues depicting the stations of the Cross.

   Long before Jesus' time, the Celts made and ate sweet cakes or rolls to enjoy at their springtime celebrations. With the spread of Christianity, many people no longer believed in the old gods of the sun and the seasons, but they still loved to eat their delicate sweet breads in the spring.
Since long ago, people in Great Britain have enjoyed the traditional Good Friday breakfast of hot cross buns. They are marked with a white icing cross to remind people of Christ. When street vendors sold their wares in London, they sang a song that has become a favorite nursery rhyme for children:

Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns! One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns! If you have no daughters, give them to your sons, One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns!

Easter Sunday

   Easter Eve is a time of interesting extremes. In many European countries, people have solemn candlelight services. In other countries, such as Italy and Spain, and those in Latin America, the day is filled with the noise of bands playing and people singing. As the sun sets and the sky darkens, huge firework displays explode, cannons fire, bells ring, and whistles blow. The noisy celebrations express the joy people feel as they anticipate Jesus' Resurrection.
In countries of Northern Europe, such as Norway and Sweden, huge bonfires blaze in the Easter Eve darkness. It is said that people who thought lighted fires in the spring thousands of years ago they could help heat up the earth after the long, cold winter. Now, however, these fires symbolize the coming of Christ, and often burn until the sun comes up on Easter morning.
For many, Easter Sunday begins in the pre-dawn darkness as they wait for the first rays of sun to lighten the Eastern sky. In ancient times, the sun was worshiped as the giver of life, and when the darkness of winter ended, many people believed that the sun danced in the sky. For this reason, they gathered on hilltops to watch the sun rise on the first day of spring each year.
As Christianity spread throughout the world, people saw Christ as the giver of life and turned from worshiping the sun to honoring him. As they recalled the story of the women coming to Christ's empty tomb at dawn, believers thought of the sunrise on Easter as a symbol of the Resurrection.
Easter Sunday is the most joyful of all Christian celebrations. All over the world, Christians gather at dawn to greet the rising sun with the victorious cry, "Christ is risen!" Long ago in France, people gathered outside to watch for the first sunbeams of Easter, believing that they were God's angels dancing for joy.
An old Irish custom was to hold a dance contest as the sun rose on Easter morning. The men danced and women baked a cake to be used as a prize for the winner. It is thought that the expression "he takes the cake" comes from this old Irish tradition.
In early America, Easter services were very simple, reflecting the Puritan or Quaker heritage of many of the early settlers. Today, however, Easter services are elaborate and often feature huge choirs and even pageants or plays depicting parts of the Easter story .
One of the largest Easter services is in Rome at St. Peter's Square. Thousands of people gather from all over the world to hear the Easter message given by the Pope, the leader of the Catholic church.
On Easter morning, churches everywhere are decorated with beautiful flowers and their choirs sing great cantatas like Handel's Messiah. People wear their new clothes for Easter Sunday services in honor of the new life they have in Christ.
Churches are often completely full as members come together to rejoice and to offer praise to God. The sadness of Good Friday disappears as people remember the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and his promise of eternal life.

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