Easter, annual festival commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the most important feast of the Christian year. Easter is a joyous occasion because on this day Christians celebrate Christ’s victory over death. To those who believe in Christ, Easter also symbolizes their own participation in his death and rebirth to a new life.
Easter is celebrated on a Sunday. In Western Christianity, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Thus, for Western churches the earliest possible date of Easter is March 22 and the latest possible date is April 25. In Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity, Easter is celebrated on a Sunday between April 4 and May 8, usually following the date of Western Easter by a week or more. In some years the dates of Western Easter and Orthodox Easter coincide.
Easter is the central point in a long season of religious observances. It is preceded by Lent, a 40-day period of penitence and prayer observed by many Christians. Among Western churches, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the last day of Holy Week, which immediately precedes Easter Sunday. The Easter Season lasts until Trinity Sunday, the eighth Sunday after Easter.
Rooted in ancient tradition and centered on impressive church services, Easter is primarily a religious festival. However, many customs of the season are less serious in nature and have more to do with the beginning of spring. Painting eggs in bright colors with pretty designs is a popular Easter pastime that particularly delights children. Other customs include various Easter foods, the practice of wearing new clothes on Easter Sunday, and the traditional Easter egg hunts and Easter rabbits.
II PRE-CHRISTIAN TRADITION
The Christian festival of Easter incorporates many pagan, or pre-Christian, traditions. The origin of its name is unknown. Scholars believe that it probably comes from ?astre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Germanic goddess of spring and fertility. This derivation was proposed in the 8th century by English scholar Saint Bede. ?astre’s festival was celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox—the first day of spring. Traditions associated with her festival survive today in the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and in colored Easter eggs. Eggs were originally painted with bright colors to represent the sunlight of spring, and were used in Easter-egg rolling contests or given as gifts.
Such festivals, and the stories and legends that explain their origin, were common in ancient religions. A Greek legend tells of the return of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth, from the underworld to the light of day; her return symbolized to the ancient Greeks the resurrection of life in the spring after the desolation of winter. Many ancient peoples shared similar legends. Wiccans and other neopagans continue to hold festivals in celebration of the arrival of spring.
Scholars also emphasize the original relation of Easter to the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach, which celebrates the liberation of the Jews from bondage in Egypt. The early Christians, many of whom were of Jewish origin, were brought up in the Hebrew tradition and regarded Easter as a new feature of the Passover festival—a commemoration of the advent of the messiah as foretold by the prophets. The term paschal, meaning “of Easter,” is derived from the name of the Jewish festival, as are the names of Easter in some European languages. In Greek, Easter is called Pascha; in French, Pâques; in Spanish, Pascua; and in Italian, Pasqua.
III THE CHRISTIAN STORY OF EASTER
The story of Christ’s death and resurrection is told, with minor variations, in each of the four Gospels. The events are said to have occurred nearly 2,000 years ago during the eight-day period now commemorated by Holy Week and Easter Sunday. According to the Gospels, Christ was crucified on the evening of Passover and shortly afterward rose from the dead.
A Palm Sunday and After
On Palm Sunday, Jesus and his disciples entered the city of Jerusalem, where people were gathering for the Jewish festival of Passover. As word of Jesus’ arrival spread through the city, it aroused great excitement because many believed he might be the long-awaited messiah. People welcomed him by spreading palm branches as a carpet before him. Palm Sunday commemorates the event.
During the following three days, the priests of the Temple and the Roman rulers of Jerusalem became increasingly alarmed at Jesus’ teachings and at his great influence, which threatened their authority. Seeking a way to dispose of the threat, the priests agreed to pay Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples who had approached them, 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus.
B Maundy Thursday and Good Friday
The next day, known as Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday), Jesus and his disciples probably celebrated Passover at the Last Supper. After the meal, while Jesus was praying alone in the garden of Gethsemane, Judas led the arresting officers to him. Jesus was tried, convicted, crucified, and buried on Good Friday, which became the chief fast day of the Christian calendar.
C Holy Saturday
On Holy Saturday, the body of Jesus rested in the tomb in which it had been sealed. Jesus had said that after three days he would be resurrected. Consequently, according to Saint Matthew, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, ordered the posting of guards at the tomb to prevent Jesus’ followers from removing the body and claiming that he had arisen from the dead.
D Easter Sunday
Early on Easter morning, several women who were among Jesus’ followers came to his tomb to anoint his body. They found that the great stone that sealed the entrance had been rolled away and that the tomb was empty. At that moment, according to Saint Luke, two angels appeared, saying “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!” This momentous event, which was taken as proof of Christ’s divinity and signaled his triumph over death, sin, and evil, is celebrated on Easter Sunday.
IV EASTER SYMBOLS AND TRADITIONS
Many Easter traditions originated long before the beginning of the Christian era. Like Christmas, which is related to pre-Christian winter festivals, Easter is connected in many ways with early pagan rituals that accompanied the arrival of spring. Easter is also associated with the Jewish festival of Passover.
A Easter Eggs
The Easter egg is associated with beliefs of particularly ancient origin. The egg was an important symbol in the mythologies of many early civilizations, including those of India and Egypt. It was commonly believed that the universe developed from a great egg and that the halves of its shell corresponded to Heaven and Earth. The egg was also connected with the springtime fertility rituals of many pre-Christian and Indo-European peoples, and both the Egyptians and the Persians made a practice of coloring eggs in the spring. In Christianity the egg is a symbol of resurrection, representing the emergence of Christ from his tomb to everlasting life.
Over the centuries the symbolic associations of the egg have been more or less forgotten, and modern Easter eggs are valued primarily for their colorful appearance. Eggs of chocolate or other kinds of candy are also favorites of the season.
Games involving Easter eggs have long been popular in many Christian countries. In France, Germany, and Austria, egg picking is a favorite game. It is played by two people, each of whom holds a hard-boiled egg in his hand. The players knock or roll their eggs together, and the one whose egg shows the fewest cracks may claim both eggs. A well-known Easter event in the United States is the annual egg rolling contest on the White House lawn.
B Easter Rabbit
Children are often told that Easter eggs are brought by the Easter bunny. The rabbit has become as traditional at Easter time as the Easter egg. Like the egg, the hare or rabbit was a symbol of fertility and new life in ancient times. How the rabbit came to be associated with Easter and Easter eggs is unclear, but it may have been intended to symbolize the fertile life that the risen Christ would send his followers. In any case, the Easter rabbit has had a long history in European folklore. Modern Easter rabbits are often stuffed toys or made of candy.
C Paschal Lamb
One of the most common Christian symbols, especially associated with Easter, is the lamb. It is often depicted with a banner that bears a cross, and it is known as the Agnus Dei, meaning “lamb of God” in Latin. The origin of the symbol is related directly to the Jewish Passover. In ancient times the Jews sacrificed a lamb in the course of the festival. The early Christians, most of whom were Hebrews, associated the sacrifice of the lamb with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. They connected the joyous Passover festival, which commemorates the liberation of the Hebrews from their years of bondage in Egypt, with the liberation from death represented by the resurrection.
The popularity of lamb as an Easter food is undoubtedly related to its importance as a symbol. During the Middle Ages roast lamb became the traditional main course of the pope’s Easter dinner, and it is still customarily served on Easter Sunday in many European countries. Decorative lambs made of candy or cake are also frequently seen at Easter time.
D Paschal Candle
The lighting of the paschal candle is a traditional Easter observance in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches. Set aside in a large candlestick near the altar, the paschal candle is lighted from flint on the night of Holy Saturday. All other candles in the church are lit by fire from this candle. The ritual of a fire service dates back at least as far as the 4th century. The paschal candle represents Christ’s person, and its flame symbolizes his resurrection as “the light of the world.”
In early times most members of the congregation carried fire from the paschal candle to their homes, to relight their hearths and lamps. The passing of the light to the congregation symbolizes Christ’s giving of his life to his faithful believers. The custom of taking home the new fire is still observed in some countries.
E Easter Fires
In some parts of Europe huge bonfires are lighted on hilltops and in churchyards on the eve of Easter. They are sometimes called Judas fires, because effigies of Judas Iscariot are frequently burned in them. The Easter eve bonfires predate Christianity and were originally intended to celebrate the arrival of spring. The burning effigy once symbolized winter.
F Easter Clothes
A popular Easter custom in the United States has been to wear new clothes on Easter Sunday. In New York City many people display their new outfits as they stroll along Fifth Avenue in an Easter parade. Parades take place on a smaller scale in many other communities. Few Easter paraders realize that the custom originated within the church hundreds of years ago, when those who were baptized on Holy Saturday were given new white robes to wear. Other members of the congregation, recalling their earlier participation in the ceremony of baptism, also put on new garments in memory of the occasion.
G The Easter Service
The many religious rituals of Lent and Holy Week culminate in the observance of Easter Sunday. Since this is the most important and joyous feast day of the year, the services are appropriately elaborate. They are accompanied by the richest possible displays of vestments, ritual accessories, and flowers, including the traditional Easter lilies. In many places, sunrise services are held outdoors.
In the Roman Catholic Church the most solemn Easter service is the vigil observed on the night of Holy Saturday. The vigil includes the blessing of the new fire, the procession of the paschal candle, scripture reading, and often baptisms. It is ended by a mass, in which the sacrifice of Christ is reenacted.
V THE DATING OF EASTER
According to the New Testament, Christ was crucified on the eve of Passover and shortly afterward rose from the dead. In consequence, the Easter festival commemorated Christ’s resurrection. In time, a serious difference over the date of the Easter festival arose among Christians. Those of Jewish origin celebrated the resurrection immediately following the Passover festival. By their reckoning, Easter fell on different days of the week from year to year.
Christians of non-Jewish origin, however, wished to commemorate the resurrection on the first day of the week, Sunday. By their method, Easter occurred on the same day of the week, but from year to year it fell on different dates.
Christian churches in the East, which were closer to the birthplace of the new religion and in which old traditions were strong, observed Easter according to the date of the Passover festival. The churches of the West, descendants of Greco-Roman civilization, celebrated Easter on a Sunday.
A Rulings of the Council of Nicaea
Roman emperor Constantine the Great convoked the Council of Nicaea in 325. The council unanimously ruled that the Easter festival should be celebrated throughout the Christian world on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. If the full moon should occur on a Sunday and thereby coincide with the Passover festival, Easter should be commemorated on the Sunday following. Coincidence of the feasts of Easter and Passover was thus avoided.
The Council of Nicaea also decided that the calendar date of Easter was to be calculated at Alexandria, then the principal astronomical center of the world. The accurate determination of the date, however, proved an impossible task in view of the limited knowledge of the 4th-century world. As a result Easter was celebrated on different dates in different parts of the world.
B The Gregorian Calendar
Adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 eliminated much of the difficulty in fixing the date of Easter. Since 1752, when the Gregorian calendar was also adopted in Great Britain and Ireland, Easter has been celebrated on the same day in the Western part of the Christian world. The Eastern churches did not adopt the Gregorian calendar and continue to determine the date of Easter using the Julian calendar. Several efforts were made during the 20th century to narrow the range of dates for Easter or establish a fixed date for the feast. However, Easter continues to be a so-called movable feast.