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The name is thought to be a Middle English derivation taken from a Latin anthem sung in Roman Catholic churches on that day: “Mandatum novum do vobis” (“a new commandment I give to you”; John 13:34). In most European countries Maundy Thursday is known as Holy Thursday; other names are Green Thursday (Gründonnerstag; common in Germany), from the early practice of giving penitents a green branch as a token for completing their Lenten penance, and Sheer Thursday (clean Thursday), which refers to the ceremonial washing of altars on this day.
In the early Christian church the day was celebrated with a general communion of clergy and people. At a special mass the bishop consecrated the chrism (holy oils) in preparation for the anointing of the neophytes at the baptism on Easter night. Since 1956 Maundy Thursday has been celebrated in Roman Catholic churches with a morning liturgy for the consecration of the holy oils for the coming year and an evening liturgy in commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist, with a general communion. During the evening liturgy the hosts are consecrated for the communion on Good Friday (when there is no liturgy), and the ceremony of the washing of feet is performed by the celebrant, who ceremonially washes the feet of 12 people in memory of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples. Eastern Orthodox churches also have a ceremony of foot washing and blessing of oil on this day.
In England alms are distributed to the poor by the British sovereign in a ceremony held at a different church each year. This developed from a former practice in which the sovereign washed the feet of the poor on this day.