Living Lent and Easter with Kids: Use Your Senses

Looking to develop meaningful Lent and Easter traditions for the whole family? Josie Ortega says beautiful celebrations will emerge as we engage the senses.

Easter in a Second Language

My most memorable experience during Lent was probably the one I understood least, intellectually. I was in San Andres Cholula, Mexico on Good Friday—without my husband to serve as a translator.

The people of Cholula were up early, cleaning and clearing the streets. Once a calle was pristine, small groups went to work on different sections, using large stencils to create intricate designs with tiny wood chips dyed different colors. A path emerged: patterns of flowers, crosses, and other symbols, elaborate works of art.

I was so curious, so excited! I darted around to watch the artists working on various streets around the centro, or main square. The wood chip designs were meant to serve as a path for the Stations of the Cross procession that would wind through the streets and end at the church in the city center.

With perhaps the best español of my life, I asked one of the artists, an older woman, what time the procession was coming. She said it would be half an hour. They were racing against the clock. We could hear the crowd in the procession approaching from several streets away, across the centro, getting nearer and nearer by the minute.

Each section of woodchip art was beautiful on its own; collectively they were breathtaking. I was astounded. Men, women, and children, old and young, worked diligently to create an enormous, beautiful path that would last for only half an hour before being trampled by the feet of the faithful, carried away in the wind.

I’ve never seen anything like it!

The Whole-Person Experience

The Good Friday procession in Cholula was a grand, glorious event that moved me to tears. It had this effect on me even though I didn’t really know what was going on. I didn’t understand the details, the meaning of each symbol, the history behind the tradition.

I longed to know more. But with limited language and knowledge, I was left with awe and amazement. The sights, sounds, and smells of the town that morning have stayed with me for years. The taste of the chilaquiles we ate for breakfast only helped to enhance the experience, obviously.

We know that when a little kid is cranky, our first, easiest solution to try will be something physical: Hungry? Tired? Need to take off those cold wet socks? (Applies to adults, as well: Jeans too tight??)

We exist as a whole, embodied people, not just brains. Our minds, bodies, and spirits are integrated and connected in ways we don’t always consider or even know about.

Because we live in these incredible bodies that run and play, work and rest, cook and eat delicious food, it makes sense that our religious observance is not limited to merely our intellectual understanding. I had already heard the Easter storymany times, but in Cholula, my soul took the reins from my brain.

A Holistic Easter Approach

This same line of thinking might help guide our approach to children’s experiences of seasons, holidays, and church.

As kids grow year by year, hitting new stages of development, they’ll learn more and more about Jesus and the story of Easter. Wherever children are in the process of gaining the language to talk and think about the love and sacrifice that we celebrate on Easter—we know they certainly aren’t too young to enjoy the feeling of dirt on their toes, or the smell of baking bread, or the beautiful sight of bright flowers on Easter morning.

Easter as the Cousin of Christmas

Think about that cozy, delicious, anticipatory Christmas feeling. The nostalgia sometimes hits when we hear certain songs, or smell a certain combination of cinnamon and pine. We have special foods, clothes, decorations—you name it—that we enjoy only at Christmastime.

For Christians, Easter and Christmas are our biggest feast days of the year. If you’re feeling stumped about how to make Easter more meaningful— i.e., not just about a bunny—try this. Think of it as a Christmas-level holiday.

Consider what your family loves to do during Advent and Christmas, and wonder if there’s a spring version. If you always enjoy hosting a big December Open House, maybe you could take on the neighborhood egg hunt or spring garden party.

Or, what do you already plan to do in springtime? Is there a way to explicitly tie that to your observance and celebration of Easter? If you’ll be tackling yard work no matter what, plant flowers that you’ll be able to use in your decorations.

Easter shouldn’t be exactly like Christmas, but more like the spring equivalent. (Instead of mittens in the stocking, you get sunglasses in your basket!)

As with Advent and Christmas, there’s no need to do All The Things. We know from experience that it’s detrimental to try. Just choose a few ideas to prioritize. I think it’s most fun if you lean into something you already love.

Lent and Easter Baking

Maybe you’re into baking—or like us, you’re at least into watching The Great British Baking Show. You might enjoy getting the family into some special baking projects to prepare for Easter.

Evidently, making pretzels is a Lenten tradition. The recipe first emerged when people were fasting from fat and sugar during Lent, and the pretzels’ crossed arms symbolize prayer. I learn something new every day.

Hot cross buns are another classic to deliver to friends on Good Friday.

Both recipes call for yeast to make the dough rise, which is fascinating for kids to watch. It also presents a delicious way to meditate on Jesus’ parable about the Kingdom of God being like a woman mixing leaven, or yeast, into flour.

Lent and Easter Gardening

If you have a green thumb and gardening aspirations, or just enjoy being outside, take the opportunity to dig in the dirt during Lent. Kids might love to decorate a pot, then take charge of caring for their own seeds.

Looking to the natural world is a gentle way for kids to begin thinking about the mystery of life and death. It’s the same image Jesus used when he said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Some people construct and plant elaborate Resurrection Gardens for a beautiful centerpiece that will sprout to life by the time Easter arrives.

A simple decorative project that I’m trying this year is bringing flowering branches inside for a large-scale arrangement. In the beginning, the dormant branches are barren but lovely and sculptural. Then slowly, what appears to be dead will sprout to life as the season continues.

Happily, the earth springs to life whether or not our thumbs are green. From the garden or from Trader Joe’s, you’ll be able to find colorful spring flowers to decorate your Easter table.

On Easter morning, the kids can put together a small arrangement to bring to church. Maybe there’s a longstanding tradition of taking flowers to the cross or to beautify another spot. If not, talk to someone and start a new tradition!

Spring Cleaning

Historically, people have prepared for the Easter feast in another practical, physical way: spring cleaning. This might be connected to the need for our hearts and souls to be cleansed through forgiveness . . . or it might just feel great.

You never know: kids could get really into beating the dust out of pillows! Cleaning and clearing out ties in well with the Lenten practice of charity, as we clear out excess and donate items that others might need.

New Easter Clothes

Call me vain, or old-fashioned, but I really like thinking about what everyone in the family will wear on Easter Sunday.

Do your kids grow, too? You’ll be needing new clothes, so you might as well tie it to Easter.

Appearances aren’t the most important thing, of course. But the Easter tradition of wearing new clothes has a poignant origin. Similar to baptism, where we see babies in gowns or people wearing white, our new clothes signify that Jesus’ light covers us inside and out. By the way, I’ve never expressly explained that reasoning to my kids, at least not yet. For now, it’s just another way that Easter feels like a very special holiday.

My mom makes gorgeous heirloom-quality clothes for my kids, which we thoroughly enjoy. The girls have begun to have an Easter dress planning conference with grandma each year, months in advance. They discuss fabric options, styles, where Easter lands on the calendar, and the resulting weather considerations. Pro-tip: weather is unpredictable. Plan on the appropriate accompanying tights and sweaters.

Whole-Hearted Celebration

I’ve enjoyed the liturgical traditions of the church more and more as a mother with young kids. Often I’m too exhausted to give things much thought; I’m relieved to fall into the arms of tradition and prayers that have been written for me.

How wonderful that, whatever our energy level, we can simply follow along with what’s happening at church. The sensory experiences during this season are rich: putting ashes on foreheads, waving palm branches, foot washing, eating bread, and drinking wine.

These things might elicit a deep soul-stirring response as they did for me on Good Friday in Cholula. Or maybe not. We can’t force the proper emotional reaction from our kids, our spouses, or ourselves. In whatever emotional state, we’ll benefit from walking through Lent and Easter as our whole selves.

Can’t manage these emotions.

To conclude, I’ll share one of my favorite personal Lenten spiritual practices: mani-pedi on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Last year I brought my daughters along, and they chose bright blue nails to coordinate with their new dresses.

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