A Movable Feast
Easter, the greatest festival of the Christian church, commemorates the resurrection of Jesus. It is a movable feast; that is, it is not always held on the same date. In AD 325 the church council of Nicaea decided that it should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox of Mar. 21. Easter can come as early as Mar. 22 or as late as Apr. 25; this year it falls on March 27 for the western church.
In many churches Easter is preceded by a season of prayer, abstinence, and fasting called Lent. This is observed in memory of the 40 days’ fast of Jesus in the desert. In Eastern Orthodox churches Lent is 50 days. In Western Christendom Lent is observed for six weeks and four days. Lent may be preceded by a carnival season. The origin of the word carnival is probably from the Latin carne vale, meaning “flesh (meat), farewell.” Elaborate pageants often close
Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, gets its name from the practice, mainly in the Roman Catholic church, of putting ashes on the foreheads of the faithful to remind them that “man is but dust.” Palm Sunday, one week before Easter, celebrates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Holy Week begins on this day. Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, is in memory of the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion.
Many Easter customs come from the Old World. The white lily, the symbol of the resurrection, is the special Easter flower. Rabbits and colored eggs have come from pagan antiquity as symbols of new life. Easter Monday egg rolling, a custom of European origin, has become a tradition on the lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C.
The name Easter comes from Eostre, an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess, originally of the dawn. In pagan times an annual spring festival was held in her honor. Some Easter customs have come from this and other pre-Christian spring festivals. Others come from the Passover feast of the Jews, observed in memory of their deliverance from Egypt.
The word paschal comes from a Latin word that means “belonging to Passover or to Easter.” Formerly, Easter and the Passover were closely associated. The resurrection of Jesus took place during the Passover. Christians of the Eastern church initially celebrated both holidays together. But the Passover can fall on any day of the week, and Christians of the Western church preferred to celebrate Easter on Sunday, the day of the resurrection.
Stories Behind The Symbols of Easter
For Christians all over the world, Easter is a time of great joy and great pageantry. Some aspects of Easter celebrations stem directly from the biblical account of Christ’s death and resurrection, while others do not. Like all holidays, Easter’s traditions have a rich history.
Eggs are often identified with Easter. Long a symbol of fertility and immortality, the egg reminds Christians of the rock tomb from which Christ arose.
In medieval times, eggs were traditionally given to all servants at Easter. It is said that King Edward I of England (1307) distributed 450 boiled Easter eggs, dyed or covered with gold leaf, to members of the royal household.
Today, in most countries the eggs are stained with plain vegetable dye colors.
Syrian and Greek faithful present each other with crimson eggs in honor of the blood of Christ. Ukrainians create intricate designs with checkerboard and rhombi patterns, dots, wavy lines and intersecting ribbons. Blessed by the priest at Easter, the artistically rendered eggs become symbolic heirlooms.
In Austria, artists design striking patterns by fastening ferns and tiny plants around the eggs, leaving a white pattern after the eggs are boiled. Common symbols in
the designs include the sun (good fortune), rooster or hen (fulfillment of wishes), stag or deer (good health) and flowers (love and charity).
Egg-specking is a sport all over Europe. Eggs are rolled against each other on a lawn or down a hill. The egg that remains uncracked is the winner.
Although rabbits have long been a symbol of spring, chocolate bunnies are a relatively new phenomenon. Easter bunnies made of pastry and sugar first became popular in southern Germany at the beginning of the 1800s.
The Whole Earth Holiday Book connects the rabbit and colored eggs with the story of a poor woman who could afford no sweets for her children on Easter. She colored some eggs and hid them in a nest for her children to find. During the hunt, the children spotted a large hare in the bushes. They told their friends the bunny had left the eggs, and so the Easter bunny story began.
The Easter bunny shows up in many European Easter traditions. However, it is not the only animal believed to bring colored eggs. Swiss children believe a cuckoo brings the eggs; Czech children wait for a lark. German children have a lot of options--a rooster, a stork, a bunny, or a fox will bring their treats.
Food plays a prominent role in any holiday, and Easter is no exception. For many Americans, Easter dinner includes a hearty helping of ham. But few know the first recorded public blessing of Easter ham occurred in the 10th century.
The pig has always been a symbol of good luck and prosperity among Indo- Europeans (hence the practice of saving money in a piggy bank). In Hungary, the highest card (ace) in card games is called “pig.”
The age-old custom of eating pig or boar meat was probably brought to America by the English, Scandinavians, Germans, and Slavs, who still eat pork at Easter. In Transylvania, ham is wrapped in bread dough before being baked, and in Hungary, a meat loaf made of chopped pork, ham, eggs, bread, and spices crowns the Easter feast.
In addition to ham, pastries and bread also figure prominently in Easter fare all over the world. In Russia, paska is made of flour, cottage cheese, sugar, raisins, eggs and milk, and then molded and baked with a cross on each side.