In the mid-1800s, when the Missionaries of the Precious Blood first came to the United States to minister to the German immigrants who had settled in Ohio and points west, the people’s lives were entwined with the liturgical year, according to Fr. David Hoying, C.PP.S., historian and archivist for the Cincinnati Province.

“The Church celebrates a cycle of seasons and feasts that provided a structure for the people’s cultural life. Nature’s dying and rising, the earth’s seeding and reaping, the mystery of life rising out of death—all of it pointed to the mystery of God,” he said. “Their life was a real and tangible expression of faith in God and of worshipping him.”

Most of them were farmers and gardeners so the weather and the calendar were very important to them, he said. “As we look at the liturgical year for them, we find the days have certain designations. Certain saints’ days marked the time for planting and harvesting, and they were remembered by little rhymes,” he said.

For instance, the German settlers marked the feast of St. Gertrude on March 17. She was the patron saint of gardeners, and on the feast day, peas were planted according to this ditty, Fr. Hoying said: “When St. Gertrude blows the lights out, put the peas out.” On the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19, people believed that “March rains bring (harvest) gains.”

Throughout the spring, farmers and gardeners watched the liturgical calendar and followed its traditions, which included:

  • April 1 was the birthday of Judas Iscariot. No work was done on that day, and no projects were begun.
  • The days before Ash Wednesday, then as now, were carnival days. “For merriment, there was a parade, and they burned a straw effigy of the old man of winter, who was also the old man of sin.”
  • On Ash Wednesday, they ate a sparse diet: black coffee, salted herring, boiled potatoes and white bean soup.
  • On Palm Sunday, overcoats were set aside. People carried “palms” that were long poles decorated with ribbons and fresh greenery such as boxwood and pussy willow.
  • Holy Week was a solemn time, a “silent week” when little work was done. No work at all was done by blacksmiths, carpenters or weavers—so nails and cross could be made, or that parts of the loom could be used for the garments of Good Friday.
  • Tuesday of Holy Week was called “Yellow Tuesday.” Homes were scrubbed clean for Easter.
  • Wednesday of Holy Week was called “Crooked Wednesday,” and wood was gathered for the Easter fire.
  • Holy Thursday or “Weeping Thursday” was a time to refresh the bedding in the home with fresh straw.
  • On Good Friday, people wore black clothing without jewelry and stayed quiet all day. They held a “black fast,” abstaining from meat plus anything that came from living animals, including butter and cream. Even the animals weren’t fed. Hearths were cleaned out, and there was no fire in the home. Potatoes were planted late on Good Friday.
  • Holy Saturday was “Barren Saturday,” a time for a solemn vigil. People brought “Easter water” and a cooled ember from the Easter fire home from church.
  • All preparations for Easter were to be completed on Holy Saturday. “Everything had to be in perfect order for Easter,” he said. The early nighttime hours were spent in a vigil in the cemetery; most people went home around midnight.
  • On Easter Sunday, there was a procession around the church. Those who were processing knocked on the doors of the church and asked for the King of Glory to enter in. Those who rose early on Easter could peek through a crack in the door and perhaps see the Easter lamb dancing.
  • Families hunted Easter eggs, which were left by a rabbit. By then the lapwings had returned, and their nest looked just like a rabbit’s nest. “Lapwings’ eggs were somewhat colored, and that’s where the idea came from of a rabbit laying eggs,” Fr. Hoying said.
  • The Easter celebration included the Easter fire. “People processed from the church to a designated hill. They lit a fire and sang hymns around it then brought torches to light the hearth at home. Young people jumped over the fire for healing and protection,” he said.
  • The Easter flower was the yellow daffodil. As part of the Easter celebration, people decorated graves with daffodils and violets.

As with Christmas and Pentecost, Easter had a second-day celebration, he added. Easter Monday was Emmaus Day, when people took walks imitating the disciples on the road. White Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, was the day for First Communion.

“We think that our ancestors on the farm worked every day and worked hard, but the thing that might amaze us is that they did take time off,” he said. “They didn’t work on holy days; days of rest were built into the liturgical calendar. Many people didn’t work during Holy Week. So they did have time off during the year.”