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14 traditions to make Holy Week real for your kids

Easter lamb cake eggs and catkins on blue background closeupWe’re just shy of halfway through Lent, but let’s be real: Catholic kids everywhere are mentally on Easter break. There are lots of great Easter activities that celebrate the beauty of spring and the secular side of the season, but what about preparing the hearts and minds of our little ones for the immeasurable spiritual significance of our highest feast day?

Here are 14 activities and traditions designed to make the reality of Easter more tangible for your kids during Holy Week and beyond.

Before Holy Week

The glory of the cross

This tradition comes from a coworker of mine, one of eight children, who was raised in a household that fused Roman and Byzantine Catholic traditions. At the beginning of Lent, each child painted a cardboard cross red. Each penance or sacrifice offered throughout the season would earn them another small piece of metallic paper to glue to their cross. By the time Easter arrived, their red crosses had been transformed into beautiful, shiny mosaics!

We’re already about halfway through Lent, but it’s not too late to start. Or, this could be a Holy Week tradition with slightly bigger pieces of metallic paper to ensure full coverage in seven short days.

Palm Sunday

Benjamin’s Box & Resurrection Eggs

Growing up, I looked forward to Holy Week because at bedtime we’d read Benjamin’s Box, a story of a fictional child who follows Christ from Palm Sunday through his resurrection. The book came with plastic eggs, and each chapter meant opening a different egg to reveal a small trinket that Benjamin collected on his journey with Christ. We loved listening to Dad read the story as we passed around the small plastic coins (Judas’ blood money), the dice (gambling on Christ’s clothing), small piece of linen (the burial), and more. It always made the Scriptures so much more realistic and livable, literally following the story through the eyes of a fellow child.

The makers of Benajmin’s Box have since discontinued their own eggs, but Family Life provides Resurrection Eggs that follow the story the same way. [Note: Family Life’s eggs come with a booklet that contradicts some Catholic teaching, so I recommend using the Benjamin’s Box storybook.]

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Coloring placemats

The Bellator Society recently released a line of beautiful coloring sheet Holy Week placemats. Each features a relevant quote in beautiful modern calligraphy and decorations according to the biblical events of the day. What a great way to spend quality time with the family, chatting about the Passion over a coloring session, and then setting the table with your very own decorations!

Jamming to Jesus Christ Superstar

My personal favorite Holy Week tradition is blaring the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack nonstop. I have great memories associated with the rock opera from performing with my high school theater club, but even before that the lyrics and emotions always brought me so powerfully into the story. Don’t underestimate the ability of music to bring the events of the past alive into the present.

Holy Thursday

Hand washing

In Jesus’ time, everyone wore sandals and ate at low tables, so it makes sense that dirty feet needed to be washed before meals. That’s not something we experience today, but we do wash our hands! Encourage your kids to pair up and wash each other’s hands before dinner. Explain that service isn’t necessarily about helping someone do something because they can’t do it themselves, but that it’s about putting someone before yourself because of their dignity as a child of God. (If water fights ensue, that’s okay! Jesus knew how to have fun even as he served.)

Good Friday

Passion and resurrection doll sets

Nativity sets are helpful for engaging children in the events of Christmas, why not engage them the same way in the events of our salvation?  Lacy at Catholic Icing offers a lot of great ideas, especially printables that can be modge-podged onto peg dolls. She has a passion set as well as a resurrection set, and a print-and-roll version that might be better for the less crafty among us.

Sidewalk stations

There are a few ways to approach this one, and it’s really about whatever works best for your family. You could read short reflections on each Station of the Cross as the kids depict them with sidewalk chalk, or you could have the kids draw them ahead of time and revisit them, praying before each one as you would in church. Encourage the kids to depict as many details as they can, according to their age and understanding. What might Jesus have felt as he stood before Pilate? What would it be like for John to watch his best friend being crucified?

Silent hours

Each Good Friday, our family maintained total silence during the hours of Christ’ death: 12 p.m. until 3 p.m. (In retrospect, this may have been my dad’s desperate attempt for a nap in the midst of Easter preparations?) As younger children, keeping quiet was almost a fun challenge — we’d creatively play through the silence, using Magna Doodles to communicate with each other and making up our own sign language. As we got older, it became an opportunity to go off to our own corners of the house and contemplate the immense love of God until it was time for the Good Friday service. It makes the suffering of the crucifixion pierce through the centuries as the whole world stops in shock at the self-emptying love of God.

Holy Saturday

Alleluia banner

I know, I know, the word is a Lenten no-no, but technically the Triduum isn’t Lent. Besides, if you can get through the craft without using the word, you can have a beautiful banner to hang proudly in the house for all 50 days of Easter! The banner itself can be as simple or fancy as you’d like — paper with markers, or something craftier — just make sure it’s family-made. Give it a prominent place in the household on Easter morning and refer to it often throughout the season to emphasize that the resurrection is such a big deal, we celebrate it for more than a month!

If you save the banners each Eastertide, you’ll be able to see the progress of the family’s growth over the years. (Credit. This idea doesn’t belong to me.)

Vigil dinner

Holy Saturday is a day of suspense. The whole world waits in anxious anticipation as the first full day without the God-Man comes and goes. We’ve killed God — what now? Emphasize this suspense and darkness with a candlelit dinner in an otherwise darkened house. Try to maintain a general hush, and have Dad read the story of Christ’s passion, starting with the entrance to Jerusalem and stopping at his burial. This is a great transition into the Easter Vigil Mass, if you’re able to attend.

Resurrection rolls

This is especially handy if attendance at the Easter Vigil Mass isn’t possible, but you still want to emphasize the anticipation of that liturgy. This recipe also comes from Catholic Icing and tastes like cinnamon rolls. Tell the story as you make the rolls the night before and put the kids to bed before they go in the oven. Bake them early the morning of Easter, and watch their shock when they find the inside of the rolls are empty!

Easter and beyond

Lamb cake

It’s okay if you’re like me and have all the culinary skill of a drunken raccoon. The objective is to create memories celebrating the Lamb of God — even if your particular lamb looks more like a melted cheese statue.

As you work on your masterpiece, tell the kids about the significance of Christ as Lamb. With younger children, you might start by emphasizing lambs symbolize peace, but don’t shy away from making the connection to the sacrificial lambs of Scripture. How great that this lamb tastes like cake, when the ancient Israelites had to actually eat meat from the lamb being sacrificed! If Christ is Lamb, how do we partake in that sacrifice? (The Eucharist, which also tastes like bread rather than flesh. What a mercy!)

As far as HOW to make a cake look like a lamb, you can always make a regular cake and just decorate it with the image of a lamb. If you want to go the classic 3D route, there are a few options. I’m partial to this design since it’s what we used growing up, but it’s a little expensive. More affordable alternatives are available here.

Resurrection garden

Get crafty and outdoorsy recreating the garden around the empty tomb. Instructions and examples are here, with an edible alternative here. Add empty crosses to the top of the hills, and the whole set can be turned around to provide great backdrops for both the passion and the resurrection sets.

Easter rosary

Teach the children about the rosary by helping each of them to arrange their treats in the form of the beads (for example, perhaps Peeps for the cross and Marian medal, malted eggs for the Pater beads, and jelly beans for the Aves). Pray through the rosary as a family, only eating each “bead” as you come to it. The objective of the candy is to make it a celebration, but you can always substitute candy for something healthier (such as orange slices, blueberries, and raisins).

— Forest Hempen
Marketing and Communications Associate