Easter is the most important holiday of the Christian year, observed in March, April, or May each year to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead after his death by crucifixion (see Good Friday), which Christians believe happened at about this time of year around AD 30-33. (Easter can also refer to the season of the church year, lasting for fifty days, which follows this holiday and ends around Pentecost. See Eastertide.)
In most languages of Christian societies, other than English and German, the holiday's name is derived from Pesach, the Hebrew name of Passover, a Jewish holiday to which the Christian Easter is intimately linked. Easter depends on Passover not only for much of its symbolic meaning but also for its position in the calendar; the Last Supper shared by Jesus and his disciples before his crucifixion is generally thought of as a Passover seder, based on the chronology in the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John has a different chronology which has Christ's death at the time of the slaughter of the Passover lambs (perhaps for theological reasons). This would put the Last Supper slightly before Passover.
The English and German names, "Easter" and "Ostern", are not etymologically related to Pesach and likely derive either from Eostremonat, an old Germanic month name, or Eostre, an alleged Germanic goddess, whom the 8th century English historian Bede stated was honored with a festival during Eostremonat. No account of Eostre has been discovered other than Bede's single mention, which has led historians to suggest that Bede's observation was conjecture. It has been suggested that many of modern Easter's symbols, such as colored eggs and the Easter Bunny, are cultural remnants of Eostre's springtime festival and that Eostre merged with the Christian Pesach celebrations after the Germanic heathens were Christianized (see Easter as a Germanic Heathen festival below.), even though giving of eggs at spring festivals was not restricted to Germanic peoples and could be found among the Persians, Romans, Jews and the Armenians.
Date of Easter
In Western Christianity, Easter Day always falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25 inclusive. The following day, Easter Monday, is recognized as a legal holiday in most countries with a generally Christian tradition, but not as a rule in the United States, except formerly in a few states, all of which had dropped it by the 1980s.
Easter and the holidays that are related to it are moveable feasts, in that they do not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars (which follow the motion of the sun and the seasons). Instead, they are based on a lunar calendar similar -- but not identical -- to the Hebrew Calendar. The precise date of Easter has often been a matter for contention.
At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 it was decided that Easter would be celebrated on the same Sunday throughout the Church, but it is probable that no method was specified by the Council (unfortunately no verbatim account of the Council's decisions has survived). Instead, the matter seems to have been referred to the church of Alexandria, which city had the best name for scholarship at the time. The practice of this city was to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the earliest fourteenth day of a lunar month that occurred on or after March 21. During the Middle Ages this practice was more succinctly phrased as Easter is observed on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox. The Church of Rome used its own methods to determine Easter until the 6th century, when it may have adopted the Alexandrian method as converted into the Julian calendar by Dionysius Exiguus (certain proof of this does not exist until the ninth century). Most churches in the British Isles used a late third century Roman method to determine Easter until they adopted the Alexandrian method at the Synod of Whitby in 664. Churches in western continental Europe used a late Roman method until the late 8th century during the reign of Charlemagne, when they finally adopted the Alexandrian method. Since western churches now use the Gregorian calendar to calculate the date and Eastern Orthodox churches use the original Julian calendar, their dates are not usually aligned in the present day.
At a summit in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997, the World Council of Churches proposed a reform in the calculation of Easter which would have replaced an equation-based method of calculating Easter with direct astronomical observation; this would have side-stepped the calendar issue and eliminated the difference in date between the Eastern and Western churches. The reform was proposed for implementation starting in 2001, but it was not ultimately adopted by any member body. See Reform of the date of Easter.
A few clergymen of various denominations have advanced the notion of disregarding the moon altogether in determining the date of Easter; proposals include always observing the feast on the second Sunday in April, or always having seven Sundays between the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, producing the same result except that in leap years Easter could fall on April 7. These suggestions have yet to attract significant support, and their adoption in the foreseeable future is deemed unlikely.
The calculations for the date of Easter can be somewhat complicated. See computus for a discussion covering both the traditional tabular methods and more exclusively mathematical algorithms such as the one developed by mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss.
In the Western Church, Easter has not fallen on the earliest of the 35 possible dates, March 22, since 1818, and will not do so again until 2285; it fell on the latest possible date, April 25 most recently in 1943, and will next fall on that date in 2038.
Historically, other forms of determining the holiday's date were also used. For example, Quartodecimanism was the practice of setting the holiday on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, which is the day of preparation for Passover.
Position in the church year
In Western Christianity, Easter marks the end of the forty days of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at Easter Sunday.
The week before Easter is very special in the Christian tradition: the Sunday before is Palm Sunday, and the last three days before Easter are Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (sometimes referred to as Silent Saturday ). Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday respectively commemorate Jesus' entry in Jerusalem, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are sometimes referred to as the Sacred Triduum (Latin for "Three Days"). In some countries, Easter lasts two days, with the second called "Easter Monday". Many churches start celebrating Easter late in the evening of Holy Saturday at a service called the Easter Vigil.
Eastertide, the season of Easter, begins on Easter Sunday and lasts until the day of Pentecost, seven weeks later.
In Eastern Christianity, preparations begin with Great Lent. Following the fifth Sunday of Great Lent is Palm Week, which ends with Lazarus Saturday. Lazarus Saturday officially brings Great Lent to a close, although the fast continues for the following week. After Lazarus Saturday comes Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and finally Easter itself, or Pascha (Πασχα), and the fast is broken immediately after the Divine Liturgy. Easter is immediately followed by Bright Week, during which there is no fasting, even on Wednesday and Friday.
The Paschal Divine Liturgy generally takes place around midnight, into the early morning of Pascha. Placing the Paschal Divine Liturgy at midnight guarantees that no Divine Liturgy will come earlier in the morning, ensuring its place as the pre-eminent "Feast of Feasts" in the liturgical year.
Origin of Easter
Easter and the early Christian Church
There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic fathers. However, an Easter Homily does survive from the 2nd century which indicates that the practice arose quite early in the history of the Church.
The observance of any special holiday throughout the Christian year is an innovation postdating the early church. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the perpetuation of local custom, "just as many other customs have been established", stating that neither Jesus nor his apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. Nowhere in his history did Socrates Scholasticus state that the observance of Easter was due to pagan influences, however. In addition, if one wishes to take this specific sentence prima faciae, one could just as easily invent a justification for rejecting weekly worship services on Sunday, Saturday, or any other day, rejecting the ownership of church buildings by religious organizations, and rejecting the participation of Christians in any sort of political process, as none of these activities were specifically enjoined by Jesus or the Apostles, either. Furthermore, the entirety of the chapter renders the statement in the context of defending diversity of dates for the holiday, without rejecting or denigrating the celebration.
Many commentators, however, have interpreted the last supper as a Passover seder at which Jesus presided. In addition, Jesus and the Apostles were observing Sukkot (the "Feast of Booths") when the Transfiguration occurred, indicating that he was not immediately opposed to the observance of annual holidays. The far more common worldwide name of the holiday, Pascha (or variations thereof) indicates that the holiday most likely arose as a continuation of Passover celebrations, with emphasis upon the Resurrection of Jesus.
Easter as a Germanic Heathen festival
The Easter festival's name in the English and German languages, and much of the symbolism now commonly associated with Easter in English-speaking countries but not in all traditionally Christian countries, are alleged to derive from Eostre, an alleged Germanic pagan goddess, if a remark by the 8th century English historian the Venerable Bede to that effect is to be believed. Her primary festival, according to Bede, fell in the spring during her month, Eostremonat. According to the Bede, the word "Easter" is derived from the Old Norse Ostara or Eostre, a festival of spring at the vernal equinox, March 21, when nature is in resurrection after winter, hence, the symbolism of rabbits, notable for their fecundity, and the eggs, colored like rays of the returning sun and the aurora borealis. The Easter Bunny is a Western European tradition and has never been adopted by Orthodox Christians, showing as false the claim that the entire holiday is some sort of "Germanic Heathen" festival. Some historians assert that Bede falsely concluded the existence of goddess Eostre from the unquestionably real month name Eostremonat, as any references to such a goddess from other Germanic sources are missing. Children roll easter eggs in England and America but not in all traditionally Christian countries. They hunt the many-colored Easter eggs, brought by the Easter Bunny. Hidden in the play are, it has been argued, the vestiges of a fertility rite, the eggs and the rabbit both symbolizing fertility. (A rabbit, furthermore, was sometimes said to be the escort of the goddess, but there are no pre-19th century sources for this.) However, such claims ignore at least as ancient use of eggs as symbolic gifts among the Persians and Jews.
There is much evidence that Easter celebrations existed in parts of Christendom which were unlikely to have been influenced by Germanic heathenry, under names deriving from "Pesach" such as Paschal, rather than "Eostre" variants. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 agreed that Easter (using the name "Pascha" in the original documents) should be celebrated on the same day throughout the church. There are extant homilies such as St John Chrysostom's Easter Homily, written in the 5th century, in Constantinople; or the Homily of the Pascha of Bishop Melito of Sardis, in the 2nd century, which refer to Easter. It is possible that, as the Germanic peoples were Christianized, the Christian Paschal celebrations which developed in non-Germanic areas merged with and assimilated features from the Eostre celebrations which took place at about the same time of the year in the Germanic countries, a merger that would have been eased by the resurrection/rebirth themes common to both.
Most of the symbols now attached to Christmas and Halloween are similarly said to be derived from the well-attested pre-Christian northern European pagan holidays of Yule and Samhain, although this is not universally accepted. According to this theory, Christian missionaries arriving in northern Europe found that, rather than trying to suppress popular and established pagan feasts, it was easier to simply provide a Christian reinterpretation of the holiday, and allow the various customs and symbols associated with the holiday to continue largely unchanged. This claim does not manage to explain how it is that Christians in areas that were not part of this Germanic missionary work (specifically those in Greece, Russia, etc.) are supposed to have adopted the traits of these northern Europeans.
Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ("Ecclesiastic History of the English People") contains a letter from Pope Gregory I to Saint Mellitus, who was then on his way to England to conduct missionary work among the heathen Anglo-Saxons. The Pope suggests that converting heathens is easier if they are allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional pagan practices and traditions, while recasting those traditions spiritually towards the one true God instead of to their pagan gods (whom the Pope refers to as "devils"), "to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God". The Pope sanctions such conversion tactics as biblically acceptable, pointing out that God did much the same thing with the ancient Israelites and their pagan sacrifices. However, Pope Gregory's jurisdiction did not extend to eastern portions of Christendom, so his policy could only be considered a local matter, not automatically universal to all of Christianity.
Easter as a Sumerian festival
Another etymology attempts to derive "Easter" from the Sumerian goddess Ishtar; its proponents also argue that aspects of an ancient festival accompanied the name, claiming that the worship of Bel and Astarte was anciently introduced into Britain, and that the hot cross buns of Good Friday and dyed eggs of Easter Sunday figured in the Chaldean rites just as they do now. However, most languages (as explained elsewhere in this article) derive their name for the holiday from "pesach", the proper Hebrew name of Passover; and although some pagan customs and words undoubtedly have become linked to the holiday, most continue to see its main origins in that Jewish observance.
Religious observation of Easter
Religious observation among Christians of Western traditions are as varied as any other aspect of Christianity that came to the modern world through Western Europe.
Easter is the fundamental and most important festival of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. Every other religious festival on their calendars, including Christmas, is at best secondary in importance to the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord. This is reflected in the cultures of countries that are traditionally Orthodox Christian majority. Easter-connected social customs are native and rich. Christmas customs, on the other hand, are usually foreign imports, either from Germany or the USA. Eastern Rite Catholics in communion with the Pope of Rome have similar emphasis in their calendars, and many of their liturgical customs are very similar.
This is not to say that Christmas and other elements of the Christian liturgical calendar are ignored. Instead, these events are all seen as necessary but preliminary to the full climax of the Resurrection, in which all that has come before reaches fulfilment and fruition. Pascha (Easter) is the primary act that fulfils the purpose of Christ's ministry on earth—to defeat death by dying and to purify and exalt humanity by voluntarily assuming and overcoming human frailty. This is succinctly summarized by the Orthodox Easter hymn "Christ is Risen":
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν, θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας καὶ τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι, ζωὴν χαρισάμενος!
Христос воскресе из мертвых,
Смертию смерть поправ,
И сущим во гробех
Celebration of the holiday begins with the "anti-celebration" of Great Lent. In addition to fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, Orthodox are supposed to reduce all entertainment and non-essential activity, gradually eliminating them until Holy Friday. Traditionally, on the evening of Holy Saturday, Pascha vespers begin and these services last until midnight (local time). At midnight, the vespers end and all light in the church building is extinguished. The Pascha liturgy begins at midnight, with the Priest lighting candles held by deacons or other assistants, who then go to light candles held by the congregation. Entirely lit by candle, the priest and congregation process around the church building and return for the completion of the liturgy—again entirely lit by candles held by the congregation. The hymn "Christ is Risen" is sung many times within this service. Immediately after the Pascha liturgy, it is then customary for the congregation to share a meal, essentially an agape dinner (albeit at 2.00am or later!)
The day after, Easter Sunday proper, there is no liturgy, since the liturgy for that day has already been done. Instead, in the afternoon, it is often traditional to hold "Agape vespers". In this service, it has become customary during the last few centuries for the priest and members of the congregation to read a portion of the Gospel of John (20:19–25 or 19–31) in as many languages as they can manage.
For the remainder of the week (known as "Bright Week"), all fasting is prohibited, and the customary greeting is "Christ is risen!", to be responded with "Truly He is risen!" (See also Pascha greeting)
Some Christian fundamentalists reject nearly all the customs surrounding Easter, believing them to be irrevocably tainted with paganism and idolatry.
In addition, some Christians believe the holiday is named for the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (    ), but there exist no etymological indications that would support such claims. In lands where this goddess was historically known, the holiday was never called by any name resembling hers.
Non-religious Easter traditions
As with many other Christian dates, the celebration of Easter extends beyond the church. Since its origins, it has been a time of celebration and feasting. Today it is commercially important, seeing wide sales of greeting cards and confectionery such as chocolate Easter eggs, marshmallow bunnies, Peeps, and jelly beans.
In the United States, the Easter holiday has been largely secularized, so that many American families participate only in the attendant revelry, central to which is decorating Easter eggs on Saturday evening and hunting for them Sunday morning, by which time they have been mysteriously hidden all over the house and garden. According to the children's stories, the eggs were hidden overnight and other treats delivered by the Easter Bunny in an Easter basket which children find waiting for them when they wake up. The Easter Bunny's motives for doing this are seldom clarified.
However, these secular rituals often have origins in Christian symbolism; the eggs, for example, can be taken as signs of rebirth and resurrection. Some of Easter's symbols can be traced back still further; some (such as the Easter bunny, originally a hare) seem to have their origins in earlier pagan rituals celebrating nature's springtime rebirth; while others can be traced back to Jewish customs such as the lamb often eaten at Easter feasts, which echoes Passover's paschal lamb. Eggs can be related to both pre-Christian traditions.
In Norway, in addition to skiing in the mountains and painting eggs for decorating, it is tradition to solve murders at Easter. All the major television channels show crime and detective stories (such as Poirot), magazines print stories where the readers can try to figure out who did it, and many new books are published. Even the milk cartons change to have murder stories on their sides.
In the Czech Republic, a tradition of whipping is carried out on Easter Monday. In the morning, males whip females with a special handmade whip called pomlázka. The pomlázka consists of eight, twelve or even twenty-four withies (willow rods) and is usually from half a meter to two meters long and decorated with coloured ribbons at the end. It must be mentioned that while whipping can be painful, the purpose is not to cause suffering. Rather, the purpose is for males to exhibit their attraction to females; unvisited females can even feel offended. The whipped female gives a coloured egg to the male as a sign of her thanks and forgiveness. A legend says that females should be whipped in order to keep their health and fertility during whole next year. The females can get revenge in the afternoon when they can pour a bucket of cold water on any male. The habit slightly varies across the Czech Republic. Some feminists allege it is a disgusting medieval tradition.
A similar tradition existed in Poland (where it is called Dyngus Day), but it is now little more than an all-day waterfight.
Word for "Easter" in other languages
Names derived from the goddess Eostre or from Eostremonat:
Names derived from the Hebrew Pesach (Passover):
Names used in other languages
Belarusian Вялікдзень or Vialikdzen' (literally: the Grand Day)
Bulgarian Великден (Velikden) (literally: the Grand Day)
- ; literally "Resurrection Festival"
Croatian Uskrs (literally: resurrection)
Czech Velikonoce (plural, no singular exists; made from Grand Nights)
Estonian Lihavőtted (literally: meat taking)
Hungarian Húsvét (means taking (or buying) meat)
Japanese 復活祭 (Fukkatsu-sai; lit. resurrection festival)
Polish Wielkanoc (literally: the Grand Night)
Serbian Uskrs or Vaskrs (literally: resurrection)
Slovak Veľká Noc (singular; literally: the Grand Night)
Slovenian Velika noč (singular; literally: the Grand night)
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46