Easter Sunday begins the Easter season. The 50-day Eastertide, running to Pentecost, is the longest season on the Church calendar (not counting Ordinary Time). Everything starts with the joyous celebrations of Easter Sunday and the Easter Octave to Divine Mercy Sunday. This week is the perfect time to get acquainted with some Easter traditions and customs still carried on, along with those downplayed or forgotten and perhaps in need of revival.

Fine clothes and festive walks

While wearing new clothes for Easter Sunday is occasionally observed today, it was the model and rule until recent decades. Over the centuries people forgot why it was customary. Father X. Weiser enlightens the faithful about this tradition in his “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs.”

In the early centuries, newly baptized Christians wore new white garments. This led to the tradition of all the faithful coming to Mass in new clothes, which symbolized the “new life” that the Lord gives to all believers through his resurrection. By Medieval times, the custom was being carried on far and wide. But over the years the meaning has been largely lost.

Another forgotten tradition is the “Easter Walk.” This custom saw families dressed in their finery taking walks after Mass through the fields or through town. Weiser’s latest edition of the book was in 1958, when the tradition was still widespread, especially in Europe. That custom turned into the secular Easter parade.

Easter Week

Easter Monday brought more than one custom and tradition, some of which still remain. It was a paid holiday in many places — and for many years under the old calendar it was a holy day of obligation, as was Easter Tuesday. While the obligation for Easter Tuesday was dropped centuries ago, Easter Monday remained a holy day of obligation until the start of the 20th century. Naturally, as a holy day, it had its own related Easter customs, such as the Emmaus Walk in European countries. Families and friends would make a day of picnics, where they would feast as well as sing, chat, and play games. Weiser noted: “In France and Canada, the Emmaus Walk meant visiting grandparents on Easter Monday.”

In most places in Central Europe, from Medieval times through the 18th century, people would go back to church on Easter Sunday afternoon for vespers and Benediction. It was customary to have a joy-filled sermon, often with the priest telling the people funny stories and poems that had a moral. According to Weiser, the purpose was to reward the people after the serious Lenten preaching now that the joy of Easter had arrived.

Such joyful laughter was “a happy consequence of the reality that life overcame death through the passion and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” EWTN’s Johnnette Benkovic Williams wrote at WomenofGrace.com. “This same custom may well have led to Laughing Monday, a tradition of practical joking that took place on Easter Monday which poked fun at the devil’s defeat. He thought he won the battle when Jesus was crucified, but God had the last laugh — Jesus arose from the dead!” 

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On Monday and Tuesday in Northern European and Slavic countries, the tradition of giving small presents and singing a traditional song “expressing good wishes for health and harvest” has been customary.

Station churches

Another custom for Easter Week that died out in the 14th century until it was revived in 1959 is visiting the “station” churches in Rome, one on each day of the Octave. The order goes this way: St. Maria Maggiore on Easter Sunday, St. Peter’s in the Vatican on Easter Monday, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on Easter Tuesday, the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls on Easter Wednesday, the Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles on Easter Thursday, the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs (the Pantheon) on Easter Friday, and St. John Lateran on Easter Saturday.

Stations of Light

Easter people everywhere can do the “Via Lucis,” the Stations of Light recalling 14 events after the Resurrection. As the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy explains: “A pious exercise called the Via Lucis has developed and spread to many regions in recent years.

“Following the model of the Via Crucis, the faithful process while meditating on the various appearances of Jesus — from his Resurrection to his Ascension — in which he showed his glory to the disciples who awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit. … Through the Via Lucis, the faithful recall the central event of the faith — the resurrection of Christ — and their discipleship in virtue of baptism, the paschal sacrament by which they have passed from the darkness of sin to the bright radiance of the light of grace.”

“The Via Lucis is a potential stimulus for the restoration of a ‘culture of life’ which is open to the hope and certitude offered by faith,” continues the explanation, “in a society often characterized by a ‘culture of death,’ despair and nihilism.”

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The Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, offers a helpful booklet on the Via Lucis that explains how to pray this beautiful Easter devotion, and EWTN has a video of it on YouTube. 

As the booklet explains: “Although known and cherished since the first century, the Stations of Light were never gathered into a precise devotion until recent years. It formally became a Roman Catholic devotion, however, at the end of the 20th century when the Vatican was preparing the Jubilee Year and searching for new devotions appropriate to the millennial transition and yet faithful to Christian tradition.”

On Thursday of Easter Week, Slavic nations celebrate the holy souls, devoting the day to remembering those who had departed. On Friday, pilgrims in many places in Europe pray, sing hymns, and walk in processions, often with a cross and church banners, to their chosen destination, usually a shrine or a church, where they attend Mass and devotions.

The Byzantine Catholic Church and Orthodox churches call this Easter Week “Bright Week.” St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church in Pittston, Pennsylvania, explains on its website: “The first week beginning with Pascha (Easter) is known as Bright Week. In the Byzantine Catholic Church, the entire week of Easter or Pascha is given extraordinary significance. Pascha, being the Feast of Feasts, is the greatest spiritual and historical event on the Church liturgical calendar.”

On Bright Monday, the tradition calls for proclaiming all four Resurrection Gospels. Priests, altar servers, and people sing and walk to the church’s four different points that represent the Earth’s directions — north, east, south, west. At each of the corners, the procession stops, and a different Resurrection Gospel is chanted.

“It is why when we hear the Gospel readings on this day after Pascha — it further confirms the authenticity of all we profess and believe,” the church explains in its post. That is further carried out by a custom of many Catholic churches in Slavic cultures: Slavic greetings for the Easter season: “Christ is risen!” is responsed to with “Indeed, he is risen!” or “He is risen indeed!” 

Regina Caeli

In all of Eastertide, the Regina Caeli replaces the Angelus, beginning on Easter Sunday. In it, the faithful pray: “For the Lord has truly risen, Alleluia.”

“He is risen indeed!”

This article was originally published in the National Catholic Register, CNA's sister news partner, and has been adapted for CNA.