Christ is Risen, He is indeed.
Al Masih Kam, Hakan Kam
As a Maronite Catholic raised in the United States, there are many traditions practiced in Lebanon that my family still partakes in today. These holiday traditions bring us closer to our faith, family, and heritage. They are part of who we are and how we celebrate our faith, and are continued by Maronites and other Catholics in the Middle East and throughout the world.
Our traditions during Easter include preparing decorative and festive candles for children for Palm Sunday, reenactments on Holy Thursday and the stations of the cross, to Maamoul making with the family in preparation for Easter Day, and of course, as with other celebrations, food is a huge part of the festivities.
Here are our Maronite Easter traditions (those celebrated in our villages in Lebanon as well as here in the states) and our favorite dishes to serve on Easter Day!
During Lent, Catholics fast from Ash Monday through Easter. We celebrate Ash Monday instead of Ash Wednesday as it begins after the Sunday of the Wedding at Cana. When asked about our Lent traditions, Father Elias Yazbeck of St. Maron Church in Cleveland adds, “the ashes we use on Ash Monday are the burnt palms that were used on Palm Sunday the year before.”
Throughout Lent, those who strictly adhere to Lent fasting do not eat from midnight to noon and give up meat (some even give all animal-based products and byproducts) to honor the 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert for all our sins.
Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, commemorates Jesus’ peaceful entry into Jerusalem.
Maronite Catholic communities celebrate Palm Sunday, “Shaa’nini,” by attending mass, where they receive palm fronds (a symbolism of peace), olive branches in some places, and partake in a procession around the church during the ceremony, where children are carried on their parents’ shoulders and their decorative candles are lit.
As my good friend Marianne adds, the church elderly and parents take the palms and turn them into crosses “I loved when my mom did that- I would then display the cross for as long as it would last.” I still have my palms from last year in our display case at home and I keep them until I receive new ones the following year.
On this day we also make and eat traditional Easter Ka’ak cookies. This Easter Ka’ak is often made into a ring as a symbol of the crown of thorns placed around Christ’s head.
Palm Sunday starts off the Holy Week leading up to Easter. On Holy Thursday, in our hometowns Aabrine and Batroun, and throughout Lebanon, parishioners attend a mass at our village church, reenacting the washing of the apostles’ feet as done by Jesus himself at the Last Supper. Following the mass, the parishioners visit and pray at 7 different churches throughout the evening, where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed all night.
On Good Friday, Catholics remember Christ’s crucifixion and grieve for his death. In our hometown in Lebanon, parishioners reenact the 12 stations of the cross. One person holds the cross on his back and the parishioners travel station to station (typically throughout the church and homes through the village) to pray. At 3 pm, the time Jesus died, a prayer service is held. After the service, the priest blesses the 2amah Maslouk (boiled wheat) that parishioners prepared.
At our Maronite church in Cleveland and in most Maronite Churches, the parishioners will bring flowers and place them on the alter as they come in to church. During the service, the statue of Christ is taken off the altar and placed in a coffin with a few flowers around it. The coffin is carried around the church and then held in the front of the church for parishioners to cross under and touch for a blessing. The flowers from Good Friday are passed out to the parishioners after communion at Easter midnight Mass and masses on Easter Sunday.
Traditionally, following mass, Maronites return home for a meal of potato Kibbe and “kibt el hazene”(“fake” kibbe made without meat, but with burghal, pumpkin, onion, and hamayda if available or spinach if not).
Sabt el Nour- Saturday before Easter
In Lebanon on the Saturday before Easter, known as Sabt el Nour, a mass is held at noon, and in our hometown, another special mass is held at 6pm for the people who lost loved ones before Easter.
Easter is the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Catholics attend Midnight Mass between Holy Saturday and Easter morning or mass Easter Sunday morning, followed by an afternoon with family and friends. As with other celebrations, food is a huge part of the festivities. And while many do Easter egg hunts, we have Easter egg matches too. Each member of the family takes turns at attempting to crack another’s egg. The person who holds the egg that withstands cracking is the winner.
Some Druze in Lebanon also partake in the egg cracking tradition the Thursday before Easter, “It’s a friendly way for Druze in Ibl al-Saqi to share in the holidays and occasions celebrated by Christians in south Lebanon.”
Mai of Almond and Fig also recalls this tradition, “we would all gather and compete on cracking each other’s eggs, we call it “Tae’sh.”…The person with the last unbroken egg is declared the winner. My dad often cheated with fake or wooden eggs.”
The majority of the dishes on our Easter spread are heavily meat based, as many of our guests typically fast from meat during Lent and welcome Easter to break their fast. In our family, my uncle brings home an entire lamb and prepares it for Easter to make the lamb roast, nayyeh (raw lamb dish) and Ghammeh (stuffed lamb intestines).
Our Easter Feast
Kibbe, Kibbe Nayyeh, Kafta Nayyeh
Eggs- Dyed with Red and Yellow Onion Peels: While we typically color our eggs as everyone else does, with paint, markers, etc., traditionally we color our eggs with onion peels. How to do dyed eggs: collect tan onion skins and boil them in a pot of water. Cook the eggs with the onion skins as you would typically hard boil eggs. The eggs will take the color during typical boil time.
Maamoul is a traditional decorative cookie made to celebrate major religious holidays by Lebanese and Middle Easterners throughout the world, including Easter and Eid-al-Fitr. It is a cookie stuffed with either walnuts, dates, pistachios, or more recently, we’ve seen Nutella and chocolate variations.
“The kaek and maamoul cookies are formed into different shapes and each shape is symbolic of Christ’s suffering. It’s said that the round ones stuffed with dates resemble the crown of thorns that were placed on Jesus’s head, to be reminded of his sacrifice & crucifixion. The dome like one is used for the walnuts and cinnamon and symbolized the stones that were thrown at Jesus. And the oblong cookies stuffed with an aromatic pistachio paste represent the tomb where Jesus body was buried after his crucifixion.”Mai, Almond & Fig
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Article contributors: Father Elias Yazbeck, Marianne Dergham, Mai of Almond & Fig and my lovely parents Lattouf Lattouf and Rita Lattouf
Recipes contributors: Siham, Sahtain Lebanese Feasts; Meliz Cooks; Nahed, Cooking Journey; Sarah, Mama’s Joy; Heifa, Fufu’s Kitchen; Mai, Almond & Fig, Rana’s Kitchen Lab, Ruba Dabboussi