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Celebrating Easter twice: Holy Week in a Palestinian Village

Easter is the most important feast for Palestinian Christians, and is celebrated in a particularly Palestinian way. Their Arabic name for it signals its importance: Palestinians call Easter ‘Īd al-Kabīr, literally “the Big Feast,” or ‘Īd al-Fiṣḥ, and call Christmas ‘Īd al-Ṣaghir, literally “the Small Feast,” or ‘Īd al-Mīlād.1 Holy Week is undoubtedly a “Big Feast” for Palestinian Christians. After a long period of fasting which is strictly observed among Palestinian Christians, Palm Sunday serves as a festive break. It marks the beginning of Holy Week, an intensive week of daily Masses in local parishes and at holy sites leading up to the climax of Easter Sunday.

The majority of Palestinian Christians belong to the Greek Orthodox Church (69%). The rest belong to the Latin rite Roman Catholic Church (20%), Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church (8%) or other church denominations (3%).2 During Holy Week, Jerusalem’s holy sites attract many pilgrims from a variety of churches and from around of the world. In 2018, Israel received 3.9 million tourists, the majority of whom are Christians.3 At Easter, all flavors of Christianity come together in Jerusalem to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, adding even more color and plurality to the festivities.

Yet there is more variety. Due to the difference in liturgical calendars between Eastern and Western churches, there are two Easter celebrations in Jerusalem. The Eastern Orthodox churches employ the Julian calendar, while the Catholic and Protestant churches use the newer Gregorian calendar.

For Christians in cities like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, cities whose religious status is governed by the so-called Status Quo, Easter celebrations strictly follow either the Julian or Gregorian liturgical calendars.4 This means that Palestinian families with mixed Christian backgrounds (of which there are many) may celebrate Easter twice: first on the Catholic and/or Protestant dates, followed by Easter according to the Orthodox liturgical calendar.5

‘The only 100% Christian village of Palestine’

This reality of strict church politics and an overwhelming number of pilgrims is quite different from the the reality of a Palestinian Christian village like Taybeh, which is located deep in the West Bank 12 kilometers northeast of Ramallah.6 Set amidst a rocky landscape of gently sloping hills planted with olive trees, Taybeh is located on the highest hill among those that form a bridge between the Judean Hills in the West and Jordan Rift Valley in the East.

Today, Taybeh has a population of roughly 1,300 inhabitants. The village counts three churches: the St. George Greek Orthodox Church, the Holy Redeemer Latin Church and the St. George Martyr Greek Catholic Church. The population of the Palestinian Territories is overwhelmingly Muslim, but Taybeh’s Christians are keen to describe their village as ‘the only 100% Christian village in Palestine,’ claiming that only Christians from Taybeh own land in the village. This makes their situation different from Palestinian Christians living side-by-side with Muslims in other villages in the Ramallah area or cities like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nablus.

Locals claim Taybeh is the same town known in the Bible as Ophrah (Judges 6) and later Ephraim (John 11:54). The Greek Orthodox church has the oldest presence in the village. During the rebuilding of the church in 1931, people found fourth-century Christian mosaics, attesting to a long history of Christian presence. Elsewhere in the village, there are remnants of a Byzantine church dating back to the sixth century. This church is dedicated to Al-Khaḍer (Saint George) and is used daily by villagers for popular religious practices.

After the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem in 1848, the Catholic missionary Philippe Uhlenbrock (1832-1860) arrived in Taybeh in 1859, becoming the first resident Roman Catholic parish priest a year later. Taybeh’s first Catholic church was completed in 1865. In 1889, the celebrated French Catholic priest and hermit Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) visited Taybeh. He returned in 1898 for a retreat.7

The Catholic presence in Taybeh has been expanded by the Rosary Sisters (Arab, since 1908), a Greek Catholic Melkite Church (inaugurated 1966), a new Roman Catholic church building (inaugurated 1971), the Monastery of Saint Ephrem by French Melkite monk Jacques Serge Frant (since 1989), Soeurs de la Sainte Croix de Jérusalem (French, since 1998), and Filhos de Maria (Brazilian, since 2012). 

Holy Week celebrations in Taybeh

The Christians of Taybeh celebrate Holy Week in their own unique way. Despite theological and liturgical differences between Taybeh’s churches, Holy Week is a time of unity. Taybeh’s church communities have agreed that they will all celebrate Easter according to the Julian calendar, and Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar. In this way, family members from different church communities are able to celebrate Easter together and visit each other’s churches during Holy Week.

Furthermore, this social agreement gives Catholics from Taybeh the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem and celebrate Holy Week in the holy places, and to celebrate it again later in their local parishes with their family and friends. This would be an ideal situation for Taybeh’s Catholics, if they were not dependent on the Israeli permit system. Jerusalem is less than a one hour drive, but at the same time it is far: Even if Palestinian Christians receive a permit to enter Israel, which many do during religious holidays, their fear of passing through checkpoints is often an obstacle to travel to the holy city. 

Palm Sunday celebrations bring a joyful start to Holy Week. The celebration starts in the church with a Mass. After the Mass, all the three churches join together in the palm procession. As is the tradition in all Palestinian churches, the village’s scouts lead the procession. The procession begins at one church, and each of the other congregations join it as it passes their church. The procession follows the way through the village to finally reach the ancient Al-Khaḍer church. On its way, some women throw salt or rice at the people as a blessing and sign of good luck. On the Al-Khaḍer site, the three church communities pray and sing together. This is significant, as it is the only time in the year the three village priests stand joined together and lead their communities in worship.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, many townspeople attend the Melkite church to sing vespers and lamentations. Holy Thursday is a special day in the village: the Latin rite Catholic Church broadcasts Christian hymns from the church tower that can be heard through the whole village and its surroundings. In the evening, many Catholic people attend the Latin rite Mass where the parish priest washes the feet of prominent men in the congregation, imitating Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

On Good Friday, many people in the village clean their houses. Villagers described the purpose as practical—since they may well be welcoming guests on Sunday—while pastors described it as a spiritual tradition, signaling that no imperfection should spoil the purity of the resurrection. In the evening, the Catholics attend either a special “burial service” in the Roman Catholic church or the Melkite church. In the Melkite church, the tradition is to make a procession with an icon of the Crucified Holy Body resting on an altar. This altar is carried around in the church three times. At the end, people venerate the icon and receive a red or white rose from the tomb.

The Saturday of Holy Week is a busy day for many Palestinian Christians. On this special day, the Palestinian Christian population celebrates Sabt al-Nūr (“Light Saturday”), the Greek Orthodox feast of “Holy Fire.” Every year on Holy Saturday, a miracle occurs in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: a Holy Fire lights up from inside the Rotunda, which holds Jesus’ tomb.

Many of Taybeh’s Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, travel to Ramallah to wait for the Holy Fire. From Ramallah, the Holy Fire travels to Taybeh. People wait for hours on busy streets before the light arrives from Jerusalem. They pass their hands through the fire, which is said to confer blessing. They bring their own candles to light from this Holy Fire, to bring it back to their homes. The Greek Orthodox priest leads a procession through the village, which is always attended by the Melkite and Roman Catholic priests and congregants as well.

The highlight of Holy Week takes place on Saturday evening. Just after the Holy Fire procession, the Latin Catholic church begins its Easter Vigil, lighting the Paschal candle. All people hold a small white candle, which is lit at the beginning of the Mass. The church is very full and people are all dressed up for this occasion. The Melkite church starts later that night at 10 p.m. and continues until after midnight. They celebrate the Divine Liturgy of the Resurrection, preceded by a celebration of hajma (Procession of Haste). After an intense prayer of about 15 minutes outside the church, the priest knocks on the door of the church, while the lamps inside are being moved, symbolizing the resurrection.

After the Paschal liturgy, Palestinian Christians greet each other by saying “al-Mesīḥ qām, ḥaqā qām,” which means “Jesus has risen, He has truly risen.” The priests offer their congregation traditional Arab Christian Easter treats: strong Arabic coffee, chocolate eggs, cooked and colored Easter eggs and a traditional Arab delicacy called m‘amūl.

Local Palestinian Easter traditions

M‘amūl, one of the local Palestinian Christian Easter traditions, are cookies made of wheat flour and semolina, and filled with a mixture of dates (sometimes also walnuts or pistachios). The cookies are made in a round shape that deliberately looks like Jesus’ crown of thorns. The texture of the cookie also symbolizes the story of Easter, in that the crumbly cover of dough symbolizes Jesus’ suffering and his death. The sweet filling inside indicates the sweet joy and victory of Jesus’ resurrection on the third day. After a period of fasting and the intense celebrations of Holy Week, m‘amūl are a fitting and meaningful treat to celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ. 

Another local Easter food is the hard-boiled and dyed eggs, a tradition that has spread worldwide. In other parts of the world, this tradition might have lost its religious connection. In the Middle East, where this tradition has originated, the egg has a deep religious meaning referring to the life of Christ. Traditionally, these Easter eggs were colored red, symbolizing the blood of Jesus Christ. There is also a traditional story that Mary Magdalene had brought boiled eggs for the women who were visiting Jesus’ grave. When she saw the risen Jesus, the eggs colored pure red. A third explanation tells that there was a basket of eggs under Jesus’ cross that colored red from his blood.

Palestinian Christian families customarily color chicken eggs during the week before Easter. In some places one can indeed see red-colored eggs, but Palestinians also dye the eggs in other colors. In the past, when coloring was expensive or difficult to get, some Palestinian women cooked their eggs with onions that dyed them brown. Nowadays, Palestinian families color the eggs in a variety of cheerful and spring-like colors like yellow, orange, green or pink.

Besides the official Catholic feasts of the week, Palestinians have other rituals to attend to. It is the custom for Palestinian Christian women to visit the cemetery on Good Friday, as on All Soul’s Day in November. In Taybeh, women usually go to the cemetery at 7 a.m. and ask the priest to bless the graves of their loved ones. Until the 1980s it was traditional for Taybeh’s Christians to walk on the Saturday before Palm Sunday to Bethany (now known as al-Eizariya) where the Bible says Jesus started his Palm Procession.8 Jesus stayed in Taybeh (Ephraim) just before Palm Sunday, so walking from Taybeh (Ephraim) to al-Eizariya (Bethany) resembles the same path Jesus walked before Holy Week. This tradition ended because of the challenges posed by the ongoing political situation.

It is a sad reality that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leaves its trace on the religious life of Palestinian Christians. The earlier mentioned Israeli permit system for people living in the West Bank and Gaza, implemented in 1991, greatly restricts the freedom of movement and adds a level of fear and uncertainty to the life of Palestinians. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in Eastertime has always been at the heart of Palestinian Christian spirituality, but this has become more difficult. Just as Jesus suffered in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, Palestinians still suffer today. 9

  • 1. This is similar to how Muslims sometimes call the Feast of Sacrifice ‘Īd al-Kabīr (formally: ‘Īd al-’aḍḥā) and the end of Ramadan fasting ‘Īd al-Ṣaghīr (formally: Īd al-Fiṭr).
  • 2. Cf. figure 35 in Mitri Raheb (ed.), Palestinian Christians. Emigration, Displacement and Diaspora (Bethlehem: Diyar Publisher, 2017), 142.
  • 3. Israel received 3.9 million tourists in 2018, according Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. See: "Tourism and Accommodation Services," in: Israel in Figures 2018, https://www.cbs.gov.il/he/publications/DocLib/isr_in_n /isr_in_n18e.pdf. In January 2019, Yariv Levin, the Israeli Minister of Tourism, reported that the Israeli tourism sector is growing every year. Levin also reported that 61% of these tourists have identified as Christians.
  • 4. The Status Quo is a series historic international agreements designed to seal control of various holy places in these cities, including sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity.
  • 5. Sometimes Easter falls on the same day in both the Julian and Gregorian calendar, which was in recent years the case in both 2014 and 2017. From 2018 till 2024, Catholic and Protestant Easter is earlier than Orthodox Easter. In 2025, Easter will be celebrated on the same day again.
  • 6. For more information on Taybeh, see Bellarmino Bagatti, Ancient Christian Villages of Samaria (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 2002), 39-45; Pierre Medebielle S.C.J., Ephrem-Taybeh et son Histoire Chrétienne (Jerusalem: Printed by the Latin Patriarchate, 1993). See also: Falk van Gaver & Kassam Maadi, Taybeh. Dernier Village Chrétien de Palestine (Monaco: Éditions de Rocher, 2015).
  • 7. During this last retreat in Taybeh, Charles de Foucauld wrote the text “Retraite à Ephrem.”
  • 8. The story of Palm Sunday is recorded in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, and John 12:12-19. The biblical village Bethany is now associated with the Arab village al-Eizariya in the West Bank. Currently, the palm procession starts from the Church of Bethphage, 2 kilometers from al-Eizariya, and goes down the Mount of Olives to the Basilica of St. Anne in the Old City of Jerusalem.
  • 9. Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center has adapted the traditional 14 Stations of the Cross to the contemporary suffering of Palestinians in: Contemporary Way of the Cross. A Liturgical Journey along the Palestinian Via Dolorosa (Jerusalem: Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, 2011). For ethnographic studies focusing on the contemporary situation of Palestinian Christians, see: Mark D. Calder, Bethlehem’s Syriac Christians. Self, nation and church in dialogue and practice (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2017); and Bård H. Kårtveit, Dilemmas of Attachment: Identity and Belonging among Palestinian Christians (Leiden: Brill, 2014).
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Photos by Elizabeth Marteijn
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