Most of us will be celebrating Holy Week and Pascha at home instead of at church this year. And if we focus on what we usually do, what we want to do, what we can’t do, it may feel like we’re not having Holy Week and Pascha at all.
We can’t re-create our beautiful church services at home. We can’t replace the celebrations we’re missing.
So we’re just going to have to focus on what we can do. We have to figure out how to celebrate Holy Week and Pascha differently this year. We can build on the foundations of our traditions, and create a once-in-a-lifetime (we hope!) experience that honors the somberness of Holy Week, and brings the joy of Pascha to our homes and families.
Even if we’re not in Church, we can – we should – we must keep Holy Week and Pascha.
Of course, you can livestream services. But, for some of us, livestream isn’t enough. Watching a service on a small screen doesn’t provide the concrete sensory input that holds your attention and connects your heart and your mind. There’s nothing to touch, nothing to taste, nothing to smell.
Keeping Holy Week and Pascha at home
For those who find that livestream isn’t enough, we’ve assembled some ideas for other ways to celebrate Holy Week and Pascha at home. (And by we, I mean me, my wonderful illustrator Becky Hughes, and a some of our friends. Most of us, but not all of us, are Orthodox. But whether we’re Orthodox, or Catholic, or Protestant – this year, we’re struggling together to figure out how to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection.) These ideas won’t replace the services of the Church. But they might help connect your heart and your family to the services you can’t attend, and fill some of your sadness with joy.
Don’t try to do it all. You may not be able to get what you need to pull off some of our ideas. And some of our ideas won’t work for your family for other reasons. Some just won’t appeal to you at all. Pick your favorites, pick some alternatives, and get ready for Holy Week and Pascha.
Reaching out to friends you can’t be with
My friend and fellow parishioner Jennifer Hall couldn’t bear the idea of being apart from her godfamilies for Holy Week and Pascha. On Palm Sunday, she’s going to drop a paper bag off on the porch of her children’s godparents, and of her godchildren. In each bag, she’ll include:
- palm fronds with instructions for folding them into crosses
- soap and olive oil for foot-washing on Holy Thursday
- red egg dye
- a beeswax candle
- ribbons and stickers to decorate the candle
- a recipe for koulourakia
- plastic eggs with candy in them
I love Jennifer’s idea so much that I’m putting together a Pascha box to mail to my godson. It’s such a lovely idea, I think it might even become a Pascha tradition.
Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday
In the Orthodox tradition, we celebrate the raising of Lazarus on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. In raising Lazarus, Christ demonstrated his power over death and confirmed the universal resurrection of all humanity.
In many places, people make small sweet breads called Lazarakia on Lazarus Saturday. The breads are shaped like a man wrapped in a shroud, to remind us of Lazarus in the tomb. Here’s a Lazarakia recipe you could try.
In other places, Lazarus Saturday is the day to plant flowers. And early spring is the best time to plant flowering trees and shrubs. You could plant something this year that would give you flowers for Pascha next year. Dogwoods are associated with our Lord’s death and resurrection, so that would be a good choice. Or daphne or lilacs for their beauty and fragrance.
Or you could also plant peonies, daffodils, tulips, or lilies. If purchasing an Easter lily is a tradition for you, keep watering it until it dies away, then plant it in the garden. It will never bloom again at Eastertime, but it will regrow and be a reminder of God’s enduring grace.
My friend Alana Sheldahl, of Nicholasville, Kentucky, will visit her husband’s grave on Lazarus Saturday, and decorate it with flowers.
On Palm Sunday, if you have palms, you can make palm crosses. If you don’t have palms, you can make palms using paper and other art supplies that you have around the house. This palm cross tutorial makes it easy!
And you can carry your palm crosses in a procession around your living room, or around your house.
In the Orthodox Church, the time between Palm Sunday and Pascha is full of services, all of them deep and rich in meaning. You can read a wonderful liturgical explanation of all these services in this essay by Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory.
And you can get the readings for all the Holy Week services from Mary Laura at her blog, Many Mercies.
Remember, you can’t really re-create the service at home. And you can’t replace them. But you can create something unique and meaningful, to find comfort and joy during this strange season.
During the first days of Holy Week, in the Orthodox Church, we celebrate Bridegroom Matins every evening. (Matins is usually a morning service. But that’s one of the liturgical characteristics of Holy Week – things get a bit weird. The days are turned upside down. We celebrate Vespers in the morning and Matins at night.)
I adore the Bridegroom services. The first one is held on the evening of Palm Sunday. In this service, the Bridegroom icon is brought into the Church. It shows our Lord, the Bridegroom of the Church, in his humility, crowned with thorns, his hands tied, holding a reed for a scepter. If you have an icon of the Bridegroom, you could set it in your prayer corner on the evening of Palm Sunday. If you don’t have the icon, you could, perhaps, clip a bit off a blackberry bush or a rose bush, and set that there.
On Monday night, we remember Joseph, son of Jacob. He forgave his brothers who came to him in Egypt, just as Christ forgives us. The Gospel for the service is the fig tree that Christ cursed because it bore no fruit. You could read these Bible stories with your children, and maybe share a plate of fig newtons.
On Tuesday night, we read the parable of the ten virgins. Five of the virgins filled their lamps with oil as they waited for their bridegroom to come. The other five let their lamps go out. The bridegroom came when they were out looking for oil, so they were shut out of the marriage feast. At this service, we sing: I see Thy Bridal Chamber adorned, O my Savior, but have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the garment of my soul, and save me.
Wednesday: Holy Unction
On Wednesday night, many Orthodox churches serve Holy Unction, prayers with the anointing of oil for the healing of the sick. This is a sacrament for us, and it’s not possible for us to make this part of our Holy Week and Pascha at home. However, Holy Wednesday would be an incredibly appropriate time to pray for those affected by coronavirus.
Thursday: Foot washing and the Twelve Passion Gospels
On Holy Thursday (also known as Maundy Thursday), many churches have a communion service, some have a foot-washing service, and Orthodox churches hold the solemn service of the Twelve Passion Gospels. In this service, we hear every word from the Gospels about our Lord’s Passion, broken into 12 readings.
Footwashing isn’t often done in Orthodox churches, except at monasteries and cathedrals. At home, though, this year, you could read the story of Christ washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:4-16), put towels on the floor, and wash your children’s feet – and let them wash yours.
You could also read the Twelve Passion Gospels. In the room where you normally pray, set a small table with 12 candles. Dim the lights in the room. Gather your family by the table. After each of the twelve readings, light one of the candles. The light that grows with the proclamation of the Gospel will reach into your heart. It’s a beautiful entry into Holy Friday.
Friday: The cross and the tomb
In an Orthodox church, there are three services appointed for Holy Friday: Royal Hours in the morning, the Taking Down from the Cross in the afternoon, and the Lamentations of Burial in the evening.
Between Royal Hours and the Taking Down from the Cross, many of us gather in the parish hall to build a flower-covered tomb. During the service of the Taking Down from the Cross, the priest will place the epitaphios, the embroidered cloth icon that represents the body of our Lord, in the tomb. Friday night, the tomb will be carried around the church in a candlelit procession, and we will all pass under the tomb when we come back in.
On Holy Friday, to bring this part of Pascha home, you and your children could use a cardboard box to build a tomb, and cover it with paper flowers. Set the box in your icon corner, and put an icon of Christ inside it. Leave it in your prayer corner on Friday night and Saturday. If you sing the midnight office, remove the icon of Christ and move it to your icon corner when you sing the words, “I shall arise.” Or, if you wait until sunrise to celebrate the Resurrection, move the icon then.
Saturday: The day Christ rested, the day we cook
Food is a big part of celebrating Pascha. And while Holy Saturday is the day that Christ rested in the tomb, most of us are used to spending a large part of Holy Saturday cooking!
You won’t be sharing a feast with your whole parish this year. But figure out what foods say “Pascha” to you, and plan to make those foods on Holy Saturday. Filling your home with the smells and tastes of the foods you associate with Pascha will comfort you with the memories of other Paschas. You’ll be happier with a house full of holiday food.
Just be sure to check your cupboards now, to make sure you have all the ingredients you’ll need, since your local stores may be short of flour, yeast, or other staples.
If you have recipes you’d like us to include – especially family recipes, or recipes for people on special diets – please send them to us! We’d love to share them.
My favorite Easter recipes
I wasn’t raised Orthodox, so my Easter recipes won’t seem traditional to others. But they are definitely traditions at my house!
- Honey bunnies: I didn’t grow up in an Orthodox home, so I never learned to bake kulich or tsoureki. These sweet, sticky rolls were my Easter bread. On Easter morning, my children would pour themselves a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast (Pascha and Christmas were the only times they were allowed marshmallow cereals), and they’d eat that and a honey bunny for their Pascha breakfast.
- Cheese and sausage balls: My children are all grown now, and the smell of cheese and sausage balls baking still smells like Pascha to them.
- Bacon wrapped dates: If you read the “frames” in Catherine’s Pascha, you’ll see a mention of Andrea’s bacon wrapped dates – this is Andrea’s recipe.
If you want Pascha treats in the Russian tradition, try these.
- Paska and kulich: My friend Natalie’s mother is from Russia. This is her recipe for kulich, the sweet Russian Easter bread. Natalie made her own recipe for paska, the sweet cheese that you spread on the kulich. It’s much simpler than the traditional molded version.
- Gluten-free Easter bread: This recipe is perfect for people who want a traditional Easter bread, but can’t have wheat.
- Dairy-free paska: Traditional paska cheese includes both milk and eggs. My decidedly non-traditional take on paska cheese doesn’t have either one. It’s easy to make. And, to be absolutely honest, I like it even more than I like the real thing.
Greek Easter bread is very different from Russian Easter bread – but it’s just as wonderful!
- Tsoureki (Greek Easter bread): This calls for spices you might not have on hand – you can substitute vanilla for the mastic, and cardamom for the mahleb, although it won’t be quite the same.
- Koulourakia: These are the traditional Greek cookies for Pascha (the recipe calls for 1 ½ Tbsp baker’s ammonia; if you don’t have it, use 1 ½ Tbsp baking powder PLUS 1 ½ Tbsp baking soda).
Whatever you make, set it aside for Pascha – just like you would any other year. You won’t have long to wait.
Decorating for Pascha
The church is always full of flowers and candles at Pascha. A few years ago, I started trying to bring fill my house with flowers from the farmer’s market for Pascha.
Alana says she’s always wanted her Pascha decor levels to rival her Christmas decor. And this might be the year she does it. She’s going to fill her home with garlands of silk flowers and twinkle lights.
Christina Nicole is going to make garlands of red eggs cut out of paper and decorated with crosses. And she thought coloring paper pysanky eggs would be fun, too. Here’s a coloring page to get you started, and more about pysanky motifs if you want to make your own designs.
If you can’t get flowers, silk or real, this year, you might be able to take some time during Holy Week to make flowers to decorate your home for Pascha.
The easiest flowers to make are paper flowers.
To go with the flowers, you might want to make red egg ornaments. Cut some branches that have barely started budding out, put them in a vase, hang the red eggs on the branches, and add flowers.
Picture books for Pascha
Children who are missing the traditional Pascha this year might be comforted by reading and re-reading their favorite Easter picture books. Read all of them, over and over, to help them work through their feelings about this year’s Pascha.
Your children might find Catherine’s Pascha especially helpful. In the book, Peter (Catherine’s little brother) sleeps through everything. He wakes at the very end, in the car, as they are heading home from church at sunrise, and he cries, “I MISSED PASCHA!”
And, of course, although he slept through the service and the party, he hadn’t truly missed Pascha. Because one of the things that you see in the illustrations is the universality of Pascha across time and space. In the churches in the backgrounds of the pages, it’s always the same place in the Pascha service as it is in Catherine’s church. Even in Hagia Sophia, when Catherine’s parish is processing around the church, so are they. And at Holy Trinity, in Kodiak, Alaska, people are processing together, in the original log church, and the new church.
All of us are connected in the universal Pascha, across space and time. Whether you’re in a crowded church, or in your living room, if you’re celebrating Pascha, you’re together with everyone who has ever celebrated it. So, as you read Catherine’s Pascha with your children, you can help them see that in the illustrations, and that might help them feel it in their hearts.
Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, the Holy Day of Holy Days
In the Orthodox Church, our sunrise service is held in the middle of the night. Coming to church at midnight, celebrating with processions and incense and bells, with songs and shouts – it’s an over-the-top sensory experience, not to be missed.
Pascha worship in the middle of the night
This year, though, when we celebrate Pascha at home, we’ll miss the over-the-topness of the service in the middle of the night. And it’s okay to acknowledge that, and to be sad.
At the same time, we know that Death couldn’t hold Christ in the grave, and sorrow can’t hold us as we celebrate Christ’s glorious resurrection. Here are some things you might do to find joy in the night.
- Instead of putting your children in their beds at bedtime, tuck them in to sleep on blankets in the icon corner. Wake them just before midnight.
- Play recordings of your favorite Pascha music. My favorite is the Resurrection album by Archangel voices. (If you stream your music on Amazon or Spotify, you can find it there, too.)
- Heather Quigley, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, plans to have a Paschal fire in her backyard. Not at midnight, though, as she has a little one. If you can’t have a backyard bonfire, turn on your gas logs at midnight, or build a fire in your fireplace. Or do what I plan to do: fill your fireplace with candles. When the fire is burning brightly, sing “Let God Arise.” That’s a very, very old tradition that we can do now.
- Process around your house, or just around your living room, carrying candles.
- Let your children hold decorated candles as they watch and sing along with a livestream service.
- Instead of livestreaming, sing, chant, or read Paschal Matins. You can download the texts if you don’t have a service book.
- Read the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom.
- Shout “Christ is risen!” and “Indeed he is risen!” in as many languages as you can. The Paschal Polyglotta has about 250 languages, so you can listen and practice from now until Pascha!
Sleep late on Pascha morning. Then, when you’d usually be getting ready to head back to church for Agape vespers and a picnic, sing the Paschal troparion while you get your Paschal brunch or dinner ready. Alana plans to use her best tablecloth and best china for Pascha dinner. We might do the same.
Make cookies or other sweets with the children, since they won’t have the excitement of an Easter treat hunt. Peeps in marshmallow nests are fun and easy to make. (In fact, I think I’ll put rice krispies, marshmallows, jelly beans, and Peeps in the Pascha box I’m sending to my godson, so he and his mom can make these on Pascha.)
Take some time, later on, to use Zoom or Facetime or your Echo Show to call your family and friends and wish them a joyous Pascha. Seeing their faces and hearing their voices will help you remember that you’re not celebrating Pascha alone.
If you’ve got other ideas of ways to comfort yourself and your family, and bring joy to your celebration of our Lord’s resurrection, please add them in the comments. We’d love to share them! Because what works for you might be exactly the right thing for someone else.
Celebrating Pascha: The Queen and Lady of Days: Reflections on how we celebrate Pascha, and why we celebrate in the middle of the night.
17 ways to use Catherine’s Pascha: Extend the book, and your child’s joy, with activities. They’re not just for little ones; we’ve got activities for your older children, too.
Pascha gifts in a pandemic: If you haven’t had time yet to get Pascha gifts for the little ones you love, here are some you can order online or make at home.