Easter commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, although the word ‘Easter’ actually has nothing to do with Christianity. Jesus had been crucified on a Friday and rose from the dead on the following Sunday.
For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is a foundation of their faith. The Bible book, Acts, records the words of Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers and an eyewitnesses to his resurrection. He tells a crowd, ‘You handed him over to be killed and you disowned him before Pilate…. You killed the author of life but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.’
Because the resurrection took place on a Sunday, the first Christians soon adopted Sunday as the day of the week when they gathered to pray together and worship God. But it took much longer for Easter Sunday to emerge as an annual day to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. And Christians in different countries marked it at different times and in different ways.
Churches use Easter Day to praise God for raising Jesus from the dead and to remember Christian martyrs – believers who had been put to death rather than give up their faith. In some traditions it was also the day on which new converts to Christianity were baptised, usually dressed in white.
The birth date of Jesus is not known. It is commemorated on Christmas Day and in most Christian traditions this is always 25 December. However, Orthodox Christians celebrate it on 7 January because they have a different calendar. Nor was the date of Jesus’ death and resurrection recorded.
As a result, Easter is not fixed. It can fall any time between 22 March and 25 April. This is because Easter is linked to the Jewish festival of Passover, which was taking place when Jesus died. The timing of Passover depends on the cycles of the moon.
In the 4th century church leaders agreed that Easter would always be on the Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring equinox. But to add to the complexity, they referred to the mathematically-calculated ‘Paschal’ full moon which is not always the same day as when the moon appears full in the sky!
It got even more complicated in the 18th century when the Western and Eastern (Orthodox) Christian churches decided to use different calendars. As a result, Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on a different Sunday. In recent decades, Church leaders and governments have tried to settle on a specific date for Easter in April but no agreement has been reached.
In most countries, the name for Easter is derived from the word Passover. In French it is Paques; in Spanish, Pascua, and in Italian, Pasqua. The word ‘Easter’ comes from the name for an Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess, Eostre, who was celebrated in Spring.
In Germany, the festival is called Ostern because there the goddess is named Ostara. The association of eggs with Easter is very ancient and the origins are not clear. But eggs – and rabbits – are thought to be symbols of new life at springtime and Easter is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and the new life or fresh start that people receive when they become Christians.
Easter, Latin Pascha, Greek Pascha, principal festival of the Christian church, which celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his Crucifixion. The earliest recorded observance of an Easter celebration comes from the 2nd century, though the commemoration of Jesus’ Resurrection probably occurred earlier.
The English word Easter, which parallels the German word Ostern, is of uncertain origin. One view, expounded by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century, was that it derived from Eostre, or Eostrae, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility.
This view presumes—as does the view associating the origin of Christmas on December 25 with pagan celebrations of the winter solstice—that Christians appropriated pagan names and holidays for their highest festivals. Given the determination with which Christians combated all forms of paganism (the belief in multiple deities), this appears a rather dubious presumption.
There is now widespread consensus that the word derives from the Christian designation of Easter week as in albis, a Latin phrase that was understood as the plural of alba (“dawn”) and became eostarum in Old High German, the precursor of the modern German and English term. The Latin and Greek Pascha (“Passover”) provides the root for Pâques, the French word for Easter.
Fixing the date on which the Resurrection of Jesus was to be observed and celebrated triggered a major controversy in early Christianity in which an Eastern and a Western position can be distinguished. The dispute, known as the Paschal controversies, was not definitively resolved until the 8th century.
In Asia Minor, Christians observed the day of the Crucifixion on the same day that Jews celebrated the Passover offering—that is, on the 14th day of the first full moon of spring, 14 Nisan (see Jewish calendar). The Resurrection, then, was observed two days later, on 16 Nisan, regardless of the day of the week.
In the West the Resurrection of Jesus was celebrated on the first day of the week, Sunday, when Jesus had risen from the dead. Consequently, Easter was always celebrated on the first Sunday after the 14th day of the month of Nisan. Increasingly, the churches opted for the Sunday celebration, and the Quartodecimans (“14th day” proponents) remained a minority.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 decreed that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox (March 21). Easter, therefore, can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25.
Eastern Orthodox churches use a slightly different calculation based on the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar (which is 13 days ahead of the former), with the result that the Orthodox Easter celebration usually occurs later than that celebrated by Protestants and Roman Catholics. Moreover, the Orthodox tradition prohibits Easter from being celebrated before or at the same time as Passover.
In the 20th century several attempts were made to arrive at a fixed date for Easter, with the Sunday following the second Saturday in April specifically proposed. While this proposal and others had many supporters, none came to fruition.
Renewed interest in a fixed date arose in the early 21st century, resulting from discussions involving the leaders of Eastern Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, and Roman Catholic churches, but formal agreement on such a date remained elusive.
In the Christian calendar, Easter follows Lent, the period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter, which traditionally is observed by acts of penance and fasting. Easter is immediately preceded by Holy Week, which includes Maundy Thursday, the commemoration of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples; Good Friday, the day of his Crucifixion; and Holy Saturday, the transition between Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Liturgically, Easter comes after the Great Vigil, which was originally observed sometime between sunset on Easter Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday. Later it would be celebrated in Western churches on Saturday evening, then on Saturday afternoon, and finally on Sunday morning.
In 1955 the Roman Catholic Church set the time for the vigil at 10 pm, which allowed for the Easter mass to be celebrated after midnight. In the Orthodox traditions the vigil continues to be an important liturgical event, while in Protestant churches it is little known.
By the 4th century the Easter vigil was well established in various liturgical expressions. It was characterized by a spirit of joyful anticipation of the Resurrection and—because of the belief that Jesus’ Second Coming would occur on Easter—the return of Jesus.
In the Roman Catholic tradition the vigil has four parts: the celebration of lights focused on the Paschal candle; the service of lessons called the prophecies; the administration of the sacraments of baptism and confirmation to adult converts; and the Easter mass.
The use of the Paschal candle, to denote the appearance of light out of darkness through the Resurrection, was first recorded in the year 384; by the 10th century it had gained general usage. The prominence of baptism at Easter goes back to early Christianity, probably the 4th century, when baptism was administered only once a year, at Easter.
In the Roman Catholic service the priest blesses the water to be used in the forthcoming year for baptism, with the faithful taking some of that water with them to receive protection from vicissitudes. Lutheran and Anglican churches use variations of this vigil service.
All Christian traditions have their own special liturgical emphases for Easter. The Easter sunrise service, for example, is a distinctive Protestant observance in North America. The practice may derive from the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ Resurrection, which states that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb “while it was still dark” (John 20:1) or as dawn was breaking (Matthew 28:1 and Luke 24:1). It is a service of jubilation that takes place as the sun rises to dispel the darkness.
Easter, like Christmas, has accumulated a great many traditions, some of which have little to do with the Christian celebration of the Resurrection but derive from folk customs. The custom of the Easter lamb appropriates both the appellation used for Jesus in Scripture
(“behold the lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world,” John 1:29) and the lamb’s role as a sacrificial animal in ancient Israel. In antiquity Christians placed lamb meat under the altar, had it blessed, and then ate it on Easter. Since the 12th century the Lenten fast has ended on Easter with meals including eggs, ham, cheeses, bread, and sweets that have been blessed for the occasion.
The use of painted and decorated Easter eggs was first recorded in the 13th century. The church prohibited the eating of eggs during Holy Week, but chickens continued to lay eggs during that week, and the notion of specially identifying those as “Holy Week” eggs brought about their decoration.
The egg itself became a symbol of the Resurrection. Just as Jesus rose from the tomb, the egg symbolizes new life emerging from the eggshell. In the Orthodox tradition eggs are painted red to symbolize the blood Jesus shed on the cross.
Easter egg hunts are popular among children in the United States. First lady Lucy Hayes, the wife of Pres. Rutherford B. Hayes, is often credited with sponsoring the first annual Easter egg roll (an event where children and their parents were invited to roll their eggs on the Monday following Easter) on the White House lawn, in 1878.
That year the event was moved to the White House from the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building, where large numbers of children had gathered beginning in the early 1870s to roll their eggs and play on Easter Monday. Members of Congress were dismayed by the large crowds on Capitol Hill and feared that the foot traffic was damaging the grounds.
By 1876 Congress and Pres. Ulysses S. Grant passed a law that forbade the practice of egg rolling on Capitol Hill. Some historical records note that the Hayes first opened the White House lawn to egg rolling festivities the following year, in 1877, after a young boy asked President Hayes directly for permission to use the space.
The custom of associating a rabbit or bunny with Easter arose in Protestant areas in Europe in the 17th century but did not become common until the 19th century. The Easter rabbit is said to lay the eggs as well as decorate and hide them. In the United States the Easter rabbit also leaves children baskets with toys and candies on Easter morning.
In a way, this was a manifestation of the Protestant rejection of Catholic Easter customs. In some European countries, however, other animals—in Switzerland the cuckoo, in Westphalia the fox—brought the Easter eggs.