Just what the hell is a Maundy anyhow?
I must confess (ha) that my Catholic upbringing has let me down a bit here. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday I’ve got a handle on but Maundy Thursday (which always seemed the coolest of the three names) is a bit of a mystery.
As a kid I always pictured Maundy as a sort of tawny pink colour. It’s actually:
…from Old French mandé, from Latin mandatum “commandment” (see mandate); said to be so called in reference to the opening words of the church service for this day, Mandatum novum do vobis “A new commandment I give unto you” (John xiii:34)
On Maundy Thursday, priests, popes, cardinals and kings around the world will wash one another’s feet (this is the command referenced above).
In the UK, Queen Elizabeth won’t be washing any feet but will give out Maundy Money to some of her poorest pensioners in a ceremony with all the pageantry and period strangeness you’d expect from a tradition stretching back 800 or so years.
The ceremony features the Yeoman of the Guard, The Lord High Almoner (a role that apparently still exists) and six wandsmen. I have no idea what a wandsman is.
Specially minted coins are paraded in on 400 year old platters; the Maundy pennies are presented in a white leather pouch with green string, regular coinage (in lieu of clothing and gifts) in a red leather pouch with white string.
Over time the clothing and gifts have been phased out in favour of money. The practice of giving clothing to women was stopped in 1724 after the event turned into a swap shop as recipients tried on each other’s clothes for size.
The ceremony also features four ‘Maundy Children’, historically these were four old men paid to dress up in linen scarves (nowadays four actual children are used).
In the past there were also mathematical considerations, the number of recipients (and coins given) was equal to the monarch’s age in years, and recipients were for life. Upon Queen Victoria’s accession the number of eligible recipients dropped from 71 to 18. Recipients are no longer for life but selected each year.