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How Do You Celebrate Holy Week?

By Catherine Arveseth

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It is Holy Week. My favorite week of the year.

In 2011, just before Easter, I was talking on the phone with a friend in Virginia, who is Catholic. She is dear as my own mother. She told me about Mass on Palm Sunday and how she knelt like she usually does during the service, but at some point felt so humbled by what Christ had done for her, she didn’t want to get off her knees. Each day of the Holy Week was significant to her. She remembered each event.

I treasure my Mormon roots, but when she spoke, I longed to celebrate Holy Week with the greater Christian world.

I wanted an Easter vigil service, like the one I attended at St. Ann’s in Jerusalem years ago, where we lit candles in anticipation of the resurrection morning. I wanted a special lesson on Palm Sunday, or at least the mention of it. I wanted to teach my children about the Passover. I wanted a way to remember Good Friday and each of the other Holy Days.

So I decided to make Holy Week as significant as I could. At least with my family. In small ways, small remembrances, and by reading God’s words.
Over the last five years our traditions have evolved. We’ve added things in, dropped some out. And the week has become sacred to us.

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On Sunday we gather budding boughs from one of our fruit trees and decorate a simple easter tree with cut out pictures of the Savior’s life, ribbons, eggs. Then we read about the triumphal entry.

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On Monday we visit Temple Square for Family Home Evening, talk about Jesus’ final cleansing of the temple, as well as the teaching and healing he did there during his last week. (This rowdy throwback pic is from a few years ago.) Then on Tuesday or Wednesday I do work in the temple. To worship, serve, and remember.

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On Holy Thursday we set the table with china and share our own simple version of a Passover meal. Right now it’s take-out from Layla’s, our local Mediterranean restaurant. But in time, I’d like to cook a real Passover meal, with lamb, bitter herbs, matzah and boiled eggs. We discuss the Seder, the Sacrament, Jesus’ washing of feet, and Gethsemane.

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On Good Friday we make Hot Cross Buns (our favorite recipe is from Pioneer Woman), talk of the crucifixion, and do our Easter Walk.

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Our Easter  Walk has become a highlight of the week. The kids participate in a treasure hunt to find symbols of nature that represent moments in the Easter story. I got the idea from this book by Deborah Rowley. I keep thinking our kids will tire of this romp through my parents’ yard, but they never do. And each year we try to invite new families to participate with us.

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On Saturday, that day of waiting, we color eggs and prepare our lanterns. Then at dusk, we light the candles and hang our Easter lanterns from a tree in the front yard.

Several years ago, while trying to figure out how we could create our own Easter vigil, I came up with the idea of lanterns, a “tree with lights in it,” as Annie Dillard would call it. A tree full of tiny flames, flickering, signaling. A silent expression of faith in that glorious being who rose like the sun on Easter morning. This has become my favorite Easter tradition.
Last year I was so touched, as images on Instagram and Facebook started popping up. Friends around the world were lighting their own lights and putting them in windows, tying them to branches, placing them on doorsteps. All quietly witnessing their love for the Light of the World.
Then, of course, on Easter Sunday we hunt for baskets, attend church, eat a traditional Easter dinner.
We have learned to be flexible. One year we had french toast for our passover meal. I couldn’t get to the store and that was the best we could do. Last year my sister texted me to say her hot cross buns hadn’t risen and were now “it’s the thought that counts buns.” We had a good laugh. Lots of times I’m trying to read scripture and I have kids climbing on couches, digging elbows into each other, or stomping off in tears. We have flip flopped holy days, fit things in when we could. We do what we can and that is good enough. It shouldn’t be stressful; it should be joyful.
And we rarely travel around the Easter holiday because it’s tax season for my husband and he is working long hours. So staying put makes it easier to immerse ourselves in rituals like this.
But really, my greatest hope is that through the years, these traditions (which have pretty much evaporated the Easter Bunny – although he still comes because it’s fun and I love marshmallow chickies more than my kids), will nurture within my children a deep and enduring love for Christ. Their Advocate, their Savior, their Redeemer. I want them to know Him, feel Him, and be able to testify that He lives.
I want them to feel like this:
My soul looks for the Lord more than sentinels for daybreak. More than sentinels for daybreak let [us] look for the Lord. – Psalms 130:6

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Now, I’d love to hear your ideas.

How do you make Easter meaningful? What traditions or rituals do you or your family have that point you to Jesus? What ideas can you share with us? 

A few other resources you might enjoy:

The Greatest Week – historical rendering of the last week by Daniel H. Ludlow
This is Jesus – beautiful book of art by J. Kirk Richards (image above)

About Catherine Arveseth

Catherine Arveseth is mother to five children, including two sets of twins. She is an exercise physiologist by profession, writer by passion, loves hiking with her family, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and the edge of an ocean. She and her husband, Doug, began their family in Virginia but now live in Salt Lake City, Utah. She blogs at wildnprecious.com.

5 thoughts on “How Do You Celebrate Holy Week?”

  1. I love your ideas Catherine! This year life has been so busy and Easter has snuck up on me! I haven't had it Together to do many of our usual things. I want to do your lights in the tree that is so beautiful! We have been reading every night about his last week. We usually do a special dinner, maybe a spin off of a Passover dinner with symbols of the saviors life. We eat fish, bread, asparagus (represents the spear), drink grape juice and read the account of the resurrection. This year we will be eating with family so I will probably do that dinner at general conference. I just bought a book called "Gethsemane, Jesus loves me." By roger and Melanie Hoffman based on the children's song Gethsemane. We will read that Sunday morning and listen to the song. I want J. Kirk Richards book!

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  2. Thank you for this post. What we do for Holy Week changes depending on where we live and I don't do anything big with our children, just talk about what happened each day. I like to use Eric Huntsman's book and blog for that.

    For me personally though, Holy Week needs other Christians around and my family just isn't enough people. Sometimes we've lived in places where the LDS stake or area does an Easter concert, but it seems to be scheduled on Good Friday or Holy Saturday and it's not the right time for me to be listening to Easter songs. So I go to other churches a lot on during Holy Week if we live in a place where that is possible.

    On Sunday we were at the National Cathedral for an early Palm Sunday service. Today I was in Washington DC, ready to start on my tradition that I learned in Mexico of visiting seven churches on Maundy Thursday, but I had to go home early and only went to two. Tomorrow I'm planning on going back to DC for a Via Crucis. And yesterday we went to see the cherry blossoms which can only be part of Holy Week this year. We talked about how vandals cut down a few of those trees after Pearl Harbor and the importance of being Christlike, something that I feel pretty strongly about right now. This week was also a little complicated because it also has Nooruz and Purim, neither of which match the solemnity of Holy Week.

    No matter where I am, on Holy Saturday I like to go to the temple or work on family history if the temple is too far away or not possible that day. Another Mexican tradition we've picked up is to make empanadas. They're sold everywhere during Semana Santa, especially in front of the churches, and eating those is now an important part of Holy Week for me.

    I miss Guadalajara and Jerusalem so much this week.

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  3. I love Holy Week. I don't always give it the attention I'd like. It seems that our culture doesn't support making time for it as easily as happens at Christmas time. In years past, I've done alot, then for the last few years, not much, as it always seems to creep up on me during a busy time of year. This year, I was determined that Holy Week would be everything I wanted, and several weeks ago I sat down and planned what we would do.

    Sunday we had a little mini FHE about Palm Sunday and the Triumphal Entry, then we planted a Resurrection Garden. http://www.celebratingholidays.com/?page_id=7042 It is basically a terra cotta dish in which we formed a hill, cave out of clay for the tomb, and then planted grass and put in some small plants. The garden has been growing all week.

    Monday night we had a FHE about the Atonement and what it does for us. I worked hard to make it very meaningful with some great stories, object lessons, and visuals.

    Tuesday night is where things got dicey; I fell and broke my foot, so alot of the rest of the week's plans have had to be altered.

    Tonight we held our annual Jerusalem Dinner. I haven't felt my kids were ready for a full-on Passover meal, but we've had a tradition for about 8 years now of having a dinner where we eat foods from Jesus' time, such as lentils, pita bread, nuts, cantaloupe, grapes, olives, etc. We eat on the floor from common dishes, with no utensils. My children adore this tradition, and it is one of their favorite meals of the year. We try to talk about the Last Supper during this time.

    Tomorrow, on Good Friday, I was planning to make Hot Cross Buns, but with my foot out of commission, I'm not feeling up to that. My kids are going to gather twigs and make three crosses to place in our Resurrection Garden as we talk about the crucifixion. I've also asked my daughter to make a small caterpillar out of modelling material, which we will wrap in a tiny silk "cocoon" and place somewhere in the garden. The children will choose a stone to place in front of the entrance to our little cave.

    Saturday we will do our traditional Easter egg hunt and egg dyeing. That night after the kids go to bed, I'm planning to ask my husband to go to the store and get a bouquet of spring flowers.

    Sunday morning I plan to get up early, cut the flowers, and place them all over the little garden we made, which will then be blooming with joy. I also plan to replace the caterpillar and cocoon with a butterfly. The stone will be removed from the cave entrance.

    The children will see all this when they wake up. They will also have their Easter baskets at that time. Later on Sunday we'll do the traditional ham dinner.

    For me personally, I have been reading Eric Huntsman's book and the accompanying scriptures each day. I've been trying to listen to appropriate music by watching great choral and organ videos on YouTube each day (Palm Sunday hymns on Palm Sunday, more subdued music throughout the week, etc.) I will hopefully listen to parts of Bach's passions tomorrow. I've sung both the St. John and St. Matthew, so they have extra meaning for me.

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  4. You do everything with such grace, beauty and panache! How wonderful that your children will have such sweet memories. Congratulations for getting it right! Happy Easter!

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  5. It's only been in the past two years that I've thought to make more of Holy Week, but even in that short time, I've felt such a difference in myself when I think about Easter and the Resurrection. I've used to thinking about and celebrating Christ's birth for the whole month of December, and now that I'm striving to do that with Easter, I feel more light, more love, and more depth to this holiday.

    We have three little children, so I've tried to start out simple. I'm really excited to see how our traditions grow over the years, though! We print out signs for each of the days of Holy Week, use green construction paper to make our own palm branches, and then each day hang up a new sign and talk about what Christ did on that day. I also try to find a video (usually the Bible Videos on lds.org) to match some portion of the scriptural account. I haven't yet found a good tradition that I love for Saturday night and Easter morning, but I absolutely love the candlelight ideas! What a beautiful image!

    I really appreciate this post and the opportunity to see how so many other families celebrate. That verse from the Psalms–that is exactly what I want my children to feel, too!

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