Around the globe, Catholics will spend the 40 days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, focused on prayer and fasting as they prepare for the joyful resurrection of Our Savior on Easter.
It is universal, and yet cultures throughout the world have put their own unique stamp on Lenten devotions and customs.
Here is a look at some of those traditions:
The day before Lent begins is called Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras, Carnival, Pancake Tuesday, and more in various languages. This is the time when rich foods are enjoyed before the period of fast and abstinence.
The tradition of Carnival — which comes from carnelevare, and means removal of meat — began hundreds of years ago in Italy, when Catholics celebrated the last day before Lent with costumes, parades, dancing and feasting.
States in India, such as Goa and Kerala, host their own versions, with dancing, fireworks and a Raasa parade. The festival culminates with a celebration of Mass, and participants often exchange colorful lanterns.
Russians celebrate the entire week by eating blinis, or Russian crepes with caviar, smoked salmon, sour cream, onions, or sugary toppings.
The traditional start of Lent is marked with ashes made from blessed palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. In some countries, such as Italy, instead of making a cross on the forehead, the priest sprinkles ashes on the crown of the head.
Of course, not all countries have palm trees, and use substitutions.
In Poland, for example, pussywillows, called bazie or kotki, are cut and placed in water on Ash Wednesday. On Palm Sunday, people bring the branches or custom-made wild flower bouquets to the church for the blessing.
In Ireland and the United Kingdom, Mothering Sunday is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent — Laetare Sunday. Originally a pagan tribute, it was adapted by Christians to honor Mary and Mother Church, and then all mothers. Often, a rich fruit-laden concoction called a Simnel cake is made and given to mothers as a gift.
Stations of the Cross
In the late fourth century, people began making pilgrimages to the Holy Land, where they would follow the path that Jesus took to Calvary. When travel became too dangerous, the faithful created a Via Dolorosa, or “Sorrowful Way,” in their towns and villages with paintings or sculptures.
Now the Passion of Christ is followed by cultures worldwide. Michael Tran, assistant director of ethnic ministries, said it is one of the most important aspects of Lent in Vietnam and Korea. Participants dress in white, the color of mourning in Asian countries, and chant at each station in a mournful voice.
“In Vietnam, a large number of parishes have a competition of who can contemplate the station in the most effective, sorrowful way,” Tran said.
Gustavo Valdez, director of Hispanic ministry, said there is a strong emphasis on sacrifice and penance in his home country of Mexico, and pilgrimages are especially popular.
He said it is not uncommon for pilgrims to drive 2,000 miles or more to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, adding that entire parishes of 200-300 people often travel together.
Many cultures enter Holy Week with elaborate penitential processions and re-enactments of the crucifixion of Christ.
In the Philippines, the tradition was introduced by the Spaniards, and is not just a reenactment.
“It’s a real crucifixion, it’s not a play,” said Adorno Father Jason Caganap, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Goose Creek.
The person playing Christ is truly flogged and nailed to the cross, but not killed, he said. The Church discourages the custom, but it is deeply ingrained.
“It’s one of the oldest traditions in the Philippines,” Father Jason said. “It is a deep, deep devotion; they feel their sins are cleansed.”
In many African villages, there are no lights, so the Easter vigil begins in the afternoon and ends at dark. The church is decorated in hand-made fabrics shaped like butterflies, flowers, banana trees, and more. Christian hymns are accompanied by the beating of drums and Kigelegele, the high-pitched singing of women.
After Mass, traditional dances are held outside. When people return home the celebration continues with a meal of boiled or roasted rice and meat.
In Ethiopia, Easter is one of the most revered festivals, celebrated after 55 days of fasting. Families offer daily prayers and do not eat until 3 p.m., except weekends when prayers are held early.
Gifts are made for the children and most people wear their best clothes of white traditional dress.
The church is packed at the Easter vigil as everyone offers prayers until 3 a.m., when it is announced that Christ has risen.