1.Easter & The Easter Octave | 2. Rogationtide | 3. Ascension Thursday | 4. Whitsunday
The Easter Kiss and Greeting
The day that the risen Christ appeared to His apostles, breathed the Spirit on them, and wished them peace is the day that Christians greet each other with special fraternal affection. Early Latin Christians embraced each other on Easter with the greeting, Surrexit Dominus vere ("The Lord is truly risen"). The appropriate response is Deo gratias ("Thanks be to God"). Greek Christians, on the other hand, say, Christos aneste ("Christ is risen"), to which is answered, Alethos aneste ("Truly He is risen"). The mutual kiss and embrace last throughout the Easter Octave.
There was a time in both the Eastern and Western churches that no one would dream of eating unblessed food on Easter. Priests would either visit families on Holy Saturday night and bless the spread made ready for the following day, or they would bless the food brought to church after the Easter Sunday Mass. The old Roman ritual attests to this tradition by its title for Food Blessings: Benedictiones Esculentorum, Praesertim in Pascha - "The Blessings of Edibles, Especially for Easter" (see Foods page).
New Clothes & the Easter Parade
Most people are familiar with the old-fashioned images of ladies bedecked in crisp new bonnets and dapper escorts during the annual Easter parade. What at first blush appears to be no more than a spectacle of vanity, however, is a combination of two deeply religious practices. The first is the custom of wearing new clothes for Easter. This stems from the ancient practice of newly baptized Christians wearing a white garment from the moment of their baptism during the Easter Vigil until the following week. The rest of the faithful eventually followed suit by wearing something new to symbolize the new life brought by the death and resurrection of Christ. Hence an old Irish saying: "For Christmas, food and drink; for Easter, new clothes." There was even a superstition that bad luck would come to those who could afford new clothes for Easter but did not buy them.
The second practice is the Easter walk, in which the faithful (mostly couples) would march through town and country as a part of a religious procession. A crucifix or the Paschal candle would often lead the way, and the entourage would make several stops in order to pray or sing hymns. The rest of the time would be spent in light banter. This custom became secularized after the Reformation and thus became the "Easter parade" so popular before the 1960s.
Two kinds of activities (besides eating) surround this famous feature of Paschal celebration. The first is the decoration of the egg, a custom that goes back to the first centuries of Christianity. Colored dyes are the easiest way this is done, though different customs from various cultures sometimes determine which colors are used. The Chaldean, Syrian, and Greek Christians, for example, give each other scarlet eggs in honor of the most precious blood of Christ. Other nations, such as the Ukrainians and Russians, are famous for their beautiful and ornate egg decorations.
Egg games are also a familiar part of Easter merriment. Most Americans are familiar with the custom of Easter egg hunts, but there are other forms as well. Egg-pecking is a game popular in Europe and the Middle East (not to mention the White House lawn), where hard-boiled eggs are rolled against each other on the lawn or down a hill; the egg left uncracked at the end is proclaimed the "victory egg."
For more on the meaning of the Easter egg and the rituals surrounding its consumption, see the Foods page.
The Dancing Sun
There is an old legend that the sun dances for joy or makes three cheerful jumps on Easter morning. In England and Ireland families would place a pan of water in the east window to watch the dancing rays mirrored on it. Other "sun" customs involve some kind of public gathering at sunrise. Greeting the daybreak with cannons, gunfire, choirs, or band music was once very popular, as was holding a prayer service, followed by a procession to the church where Mass would be offered.
According to some scholars the beautiful sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes sung during the Easter Mass in the traditional Roman rite is the inspiration for the development of medieval religious drama. The poem's dialogic structure, with its question and answer format, became the foundation on which more lines were added until a separate play was formed. This play, in turn, inspired the composition of the other medieval "mystery" plays held on Christmas, Epiphany, Corpus Christi, and so on.
Solemn Vespers & Benediction
Solemn vespers and benediction were a traditional part of every Sunday afternoon in many parishes, but especially so on Easter. Perhaps one reason for this was the medieval custom of Easter fables where, prior to the service, the priest would regale the congregation with amusing anecdotes and whimsical yarns. This served as a sort of antidote to the many sad or stern Lenten sermons of the previous weeks.
The Easter Octave
The entire Octave of Easter constitutes an extended exultation in Christ's victory over death. Obviously, the two most important days of this Octave are the two Sundays. As mentioned elsewhere, Low Sunday was once the day that the neophytes took off their white robes and resumed their lives in the daily world, and it was also the traditional time for children to receive Holy Communion. Other
days of the Octave, however, also had distinctive customs of their own. Easter Monday was reserved as a special day for rest and relaxation. Its most distinctive feature is the Emmaus walk, a leisurely constitution inspired by the Gospel of the day (Luke 24.13-35). This can take the form of a stroll through field or forest or, as in French Canada, a visit to one's grandparents. Games of mischief dating to pre-Christian times also take place on Easter Monday and Tuesday. Chief among them are drenching customs, where boys surprise girls with buckets of water, and vice versa, or switching customs, where switches are gently used on each other. Easter Thursday in Slavic countries, on the other hand, was reserved for remembering departed loved ones. Mass that day would be offered for the deceased of the parish. Finally, Easter Friday was a favorite day for pilgrimages in many parts of Europe. Large groups would take rather long processions to a shrine or church, where Mass would be offered.
The Lesser Rogation Days prior to the Ascension were especially important in rural communities dependent on agricultural bounty. They were also the inspiration for a number of semi-liturgical imitations, where farmers would take holy water and douse their fields for protection and blessing. Perhaps this would be a good time to have one's garden blessed.
Another interesting feature of Rogationtide is the tradition of having parishioners end resentments or conflicts that had been festering between them. Eoman Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars includes vivid accounts from pre-Reformation England of some of these reconciliations.
3. Ascension Thursday
In the early centuries the Church celebrated the Feast of the Ascension with elaborate processions that imitated Christ's conducting His Apostles to Bethany (Lk. 24.50). Eventually, however, these liturgical processions became nonliturgical pageants, and the pageants, in turn, became plays. Ascension Thursday was a day for special effects. This could happen in a dignified way during the Mass, as when in Germany the priest would lift a crucifix during the Gospel at the words, "He was taken up into heaven," or it could happen in a dramatic way after Mass with a theatrical representation of the Ascension event. Statues of the risen Christ would be hoisted by pulleys into the air and then either concealed by white silk representing clouds or pulled through an opening in the ceiling. The audience would then be showered with roses, lilies, and wafers. The flowers symbolized the various gifts of the Holy Spirit promised by Christ before He left, while the wafers reminded all that Jesus is still present to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
In Central Europe Ascension Thursday is a popular day for mountain climbing or picnicking on hilltops. No doubt this is in commemoration of the summit of the Mount of Olives from which Christ ascended and the heights to which he soared. A similarly inspired tradition is eating some kind of bird for the Feast since on this day Christ "flew" to Heaven (see Foods page).
Like any other solemnity, Ascension Thursday is supposed to be a day of rest and liberal leisure. For some reason or another, however, traditional folklore treats this observance for today with particular severity. Popular superstitions warned against working in field or garden, and special punishments were purportedly reserved for women who sewed. Any needle, it was thought, that was used for work on Ascension Thursday would soon attract lightning!
The Sunday after Ascension and the Roses
Because this Sunday eagerly awaits the coming of the Holy Spirit (see the Mass propers), it is not surprising that there was once a special papal ceremony to foreshadow the Pentecost event. On this day the Pope would celebrate Mass in the church of Santa Maria Rotonda, the former Pantheon in Rome with its large opening in the ceiling. After his sermon, roses were thrown from the opening as a symbol of the Paraclete's imminent arrival. From this custom comes the original name of the Sunday: Dominica de Rosa.
The liturgical color of this Sunday is red in order to recall the tongues of flame that descended on the Apostles. The old English name for Pentecost, Whitsunday, originated from the custom of the newly baptized redonning their white robes for the services of the day. By extension this could also apply to the new Easter clothes worn by the faithful fifty days earlier.
Like Ascension Thursday, Whitsunday was once the occasion for several liturgical eccentricities. Many medieval churches, for example, had a Holy Ghost Hole in the ceiling of the church from which a large blue disk bearing the figure of a white dove would swing slowly down to the congregation during the Mass sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus. Midway through the sequence, the disk would stop and from the Holy Ghost hole would rain symbols of the Spirit: flowers, water, even burning pieces of straw. A practice far less susceptible to excess, on the other hand, is the use of beautifully carved and painted wooden doves in the home. These figures would usually be suspended over the dinner table, and would sometimes be encased in glass, having been assembled entirely from within (much like the wooden ships assembled in bottles). The painstaking effort that went into making these doves serves as a reminder to cherish the adoration of the Holy Spirit.
The Blessed Dew
Though the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is often described in dramatic terms (a mighty wind, tongues of fire, etc.), it is also portrayed in soothing, comforting ways. The Whitsunday sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus, for example, calls the Spirit our "sweet refreshment" (dulcis refrigerium), while the postcommunion prayer, in an allusion to Isaiah 45.8, refers to the "inward sprinkling of His heavenly dew." Hence there arose the charming superstition that the morning dew of Whitsunday is especially good luck. To obtain a blessing, people would walk barefoot through the meadows before Mass and would even feed their animals with bread wiped by the dew.
The Meaning of Paschaltide
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