Sharing traditions, that’s what holidays are for

Last Updated

April 26, 2017

Not long ago, children were waiting for the Easter Bunny to deliver treat-filled eggs to decorated baskets from Nebraska to Maine. This secular tradition, tightly intertwined with Lenten and Easter religious traditions, feels like “ours”—uniquely and originally American. However, both concepts—the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs—were brought to the United States by European immigrants as far back as the early 1900s.

Last month, I joined Jacob Popcak on the Son Rise Morning Show, a Cincinnati-market Catholic radio program, to discuss traditions like these that immigrants and refugees brought to the United States, and how they illustrate successful integration.

CLINIC describes integration as the process by which newcomers and the receiving population work together to create a cohesive community that reflects the needs and wants of all members living there. Churches aid significantly in these efforts by offering parishioners a chance to celebrate religious holidays in holy, but familiar ways.

At first, some traditions may seem foreign to receiving community members. However, in time, these practices may grow to be as integral to other cultures as the Easter bunny and Easter eggs.

For example, during Holy Week services, many parishes encourage all worshipers, regardless of language preference, to come together to commemorate the events that are central to the Christian faith. Sections of the Catholic Easter vigil service are increasingly being offered in different languages, such as Italian, Spanish, Vietnamese or Haitian Creole, so immigrant members feel welcomed and at home. Celebrating Easter in this way serves as a thread which unites the congregation, regardless of country of birth.

The Latin American tradition of Via Crucis, a version of the Way of the Cross, has also become an expected religious custom in parishes across the country. Parishioners don costumes, make a life-size cross and re-enact Christ’s crucifixion through a procession that can take several hours. This celebration most commonly takes place in Latin America, Europe and parts of Asia, but many American parishes participate as well. Making the Via Crucis procession even more special, some Guatemalan immigrants replicate their homeland tradition of creating elaborately designed alfombras, or carpets made of colored rice, sawdust, flowers and seeds laid out in the path of a Via Crucis procession.

Others re-enact the Stations of the Cross, with elaborate live scenes, bringing the events to life for the congregation. Parishes with large Ethiopian and Eritrean membership often hold reenactments every Friday during Lent. These congregations incorporate liturgical chanting in addition to the more traditional readings.

Congregations with large Polish populations hold a Blessing of the Food on Holy Saturday. The three-part blessing addresses the various contents of the basket, with special prayers for the meats, eggs, cakes and breads. 

In short, there are multiple ways parishes can welcome diverse congregations, including using language, religious rituals, and food and cultural practices. Incorporating different customs into the congregation’s activities enriches services for everyone, and encourages them to learn and experience the many ways Lent and Easter is celebrated. As these traditions are offered year after year in American parishes, they become as integral and inseparable to our religious celebrations as Easter eggs and Easter bunnies are to secular celebrations.