By looking at secular culture it would be quite easy for an extraterrestrial, that is an alien from another world, if there is such a thing, to assume that Christmas is the greatest holiday (holy day) of the year. After all, we prepare for it from before the time of Thanksgiving (in the United States, at least.) Huge amounts of money are spent decorating public and private spaces (Though in recent times those decorations seem determined to banish the religious significants of the day.) Schools are let out, businesses close, sometimes for an extensive period between Christmas eve and the New Year, and even the secular media is flooded with Christmas specials, Christmas music and Christmas movies.
And then there's Easter. A few eggs are hidden, a rabbit delivers chocolate and many businesses don't even close for the day.
So which is the greater Christian holiday?
Before Christmas we prepare during Advent. Before Easter we celebrate Lent. Advent is a time of preparation. Adventus is the Latin word for "Coming." We prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, but more so we prepare for Christ's Second Coming.
Lent is also a time of preparation, but it is a more solemn, longer period, which includes fasting, and in the modern age abstinence of Fridays, a practice which use to hold throughout the year. The word Lent derives from the German word for spring. In the old Latin the word quadragesima was used, literally "the fortieth day" before Easter.
Lent ends with the Easter Triduum, which consists of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
A Christian realizes that important as Christmas is, there can be no Christ the man with out the birth, it is the Easter season during which our salvation was effected. We spend Lent preparing for Easter, yet many skip some of the most meaningful of our Catholic worship traditions, by skipping the services on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
No, they are not holy days of obligation. And it's true some who think of themselves as Catholic manage to skip every day accepting Christmas and Easter, as is evident by the time one must arrive at Church on those days to actually get a seat one occupies the whole rest of the year. So how bad could it be to skip three days of long services in a row. And long they generally are. On Thursday and Saturday, the day of the Easter Vigil Mass, many ceremonies not usually done at Mass are added. Saturday's Easter Vigil Mass at my parish starts at 8:00 pm and usually runs at least three hours. But these days include traditions which go back to the beginnings of our faith.
On Thursday we turn to John, who does not explicitly mention the initiation of the Eucharist, but instead tells us of Jesus' lesson of humility to the Apostles. The priest, who stands in the person of Christ in the Eucharist, washes the feet of some members of the laity, as Christ washed the feet of the Apostles. And We read the Passion, with the priest speaking the words of Christ and we the words of the crowd, because in the end it was not the Jews or the Romans who put Jesus on the cross, but us.
On Good Friday we do not celebrate Mass. It is the only day of the year on which no consecration takes place. Instead we venerate the cross, the instrument by which Jesus secured our salvation. We do receive Communion, consecrated on Holy Thursday.
On Holy Saturday, after sundown we celebrate Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil is the most important Mass of the liturgical Year. It marks the start of the Octave of Easter and the beginning of the fifty day long Easter season. By deep historical tradition it is when adults are baptized and catechumens are received into full communion with the Church.
Too late for Holy Thursday or Good Friday this season. Catch Easter Vigil if you can.