It’s fascinating to see the quirks of different cultures and their approaches to the same religious observance. The things people do throughout Holy Week and Good Friday give great insight into the history and culture of the people. A lot of them are beautiful, and some of them are shocking.

Hopefully they can inspire us to develop traditions of our own, ones we can pass on through the family and into the future.

Central America

In many Central American countries, including Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, there is a tradition of creating alfombras, which is a Spanish word for carpet. In the weeks leading up to it, and during the night before Good Friday, the streets are “painted” with all sorts of colourful designs, ranging from biblical scenes to images of nature. Mostly they seem to be made out of sawdust, pine needles, and flowers, but the intricate artwork is stunning. It’s not made to last, though. In Guatemala the Good Friday procession begins at 4am, and as the people march, the art fades with them.

Sawdust carpet in Guatemala (Source: Shutterstock)

Ukraine

Sadly, Holy Week will be quite different for Ukrainians this year.

In Ukraine, Holy Week begins not with Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, but Willow Sunday. This is because there is a shortage of palm trees in Ukraine, and to compensate for this people began bringing willow switches (flexible wood such as hazel, birch or hickory) to church instead. After the Willow Sunday service, people will tap each other with the branches in a tradition called “Boze Rany” (“God’s wounds”) to imitate Jesus’ scourging. On Holy Thursday, all of the housework and the cooking must be completed, because on Good Friday none of that is allowed. It’s a day dedicated to religious services and quiet contemplation.

Poland

Good Friday in Poland includes litanies and processions in the streets, although it isn’t an official public holiday. In churches, a tableau of Christ’s tomb is often set up and people visit the tomb throughout the day to pray. Apparently in some households, there is also a tradition of veiling mirrors with a black cloth to remind people that Good Friday is a day of mourning.

Warsaw, Poland Photo by Iwona Castiello d'Antonio on Unsplash

The Philippines

This is certainly a more extreme way of doing things, and officials in the Catholic Church repeatedly disavow it as a healthy, necessary or desirable practice.

Every year on Good Friday, predominantly in the provinces, there is a re-enactment of Christ’s Passion that involves the actual crucifixion of individuals. One man, named Ruben Enaje, did it 33 years in a row. Every year he was roped and nailed to a cross (using four inch nails in his hands and feet) and suspended there for five minutes before being taken down. Other re-enactments involve carrying a heavy wooden cross through the streets while locals dress up as Roman centurions.

Father Jerome Secillano of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has said:

The crucifixion and death of Jesus are more than enough to redeem humanity from the effects of sins. They are once in a lifetime events that need not be repeated.’

Ireland

Ireland is one of those places whose traditions often have a strange mixture of Christian belief and pre-Christian superstitions. Some smaller traditions involve getting haircuts and trimming nails on Good Friday, but interestingly some people even plant seed potatoes. Perhaps planting seeds is a reminder of Jesus’ words: ‘I tell you, most solemnly, unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest’ (John 12:24). Christ's death, like a seed, yielded a rich harvest of eternal life.

Another tradition people have involves remaining barefoot on Good Friday, even going to church barefoot as a penitential walk.

Israel

Those living in Israel have the benefit of being able to walk where Jesus walked, to see where he lived, worked, preached, healed, died, and rose again.

On Good Friday, there is one of the world’s largest processions, beginning at the Mount of Olives and finishing at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrims come from around the world to take part in this, and for obvious reasons! To follow the path Jesus actually walked during His Passion would be a holy and reverent experience unlike any other.

Germany

This is less of a “tradition” and more of a fun fact: In 12 out of 16 of Germany’s federal states, it is actually illegal to dance in public throughout the entirety of Good Friday. The other four states have only a partial ban (usually from 3pm until 9pm). In stricter places in the south, you can be fined 1,500 euros for breaking this law. And in places like Bavaria, even the playing of music in pubs can carry fines up to 10,000 euros.

Lawmakers have attempted to overturn these laws in the past, without success. Although some people dislike this, it is a great public reminder that Good Friday is a day of mourning, not festivity.

In Oberammergau, however, a town 60 miles from Munich, there is a world-famous Passion Play performed every 10 years. They have been doing this since 1634, when the Black Plague was sweeping through the region. The residents of Oberammergau prayed to be spared the ravages of the plague, and in return they would perform a play of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus every 10 years. They were spared, as it happens, and they have been doing it ever since.

Interestingly, to be in the play you must be a resident of Oberammergau, and over 2,000 citizens are involved as actors, singers, musicians and technical support. The play itself has 124 speaking roles, a 65-member orchestra, a 48-person chorus and hundreds of people involved in behind-the-scenes work. It was supposed to be held in 2020, but the pandemic threw everything off so now it's being held this year in 2022! It will run from May through early October, five days a week from 2.30pm until 10.30pm, with a dinner break in-between.

Here is a short video breaking down this world-famous event!