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March 30, 2004 > Easter


by Praveena Raman

Easter, the holy holiday of the Christians is a mixture of religious beliefs and non-Christian traditions. The name Easter is derived from the Scandinavian goddess Oestra or the Teutonic goddess Eastre or Oestern, both goddesses of mythology signifying spring and fertility, whose festival is celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox.

The Easter bunny (actually a hare) also originated from the goddess, Eastre, who was worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons through her earthly symbol, the hare. The hare was an emblem of fertility, renewal, and return of spring. The Germans brought the symbol of the Easter rabbit to America. It was widely ignored by other Christians until shortly after the Civil War. In fact, Easter was not widely celebrated in America until after that time.

As with the Easter Bunny and the holiday itself, the Easter egg predates the Christian holiday of Easter. The exchange of eggs in the springtime is a custom that was centuries old when Easter was first celebrated by Christians. From the earliest times, the egg was a symbol of rebirth in most cultures. Eggs were often wrapped in gold leaf or, if you were a peasant, colored brightly by boiling them with the leaves or petals of certain flowers.

The Christian celebration of Easter embodies a number of converging traditions with emphasis on the relation of Easter to the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach. Pasch, another name used by Europeans for Easter, is derived from Pesach. 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 observance of Easter starts forty days before with Lent (an old English word meaning to lengthen as it is observed in spring, when the days begin to get longer) in the Christian calendar. Both the eastern and western churches observe Lent but they count the 40 days differently. The western church excludes Sundays (which is celebrated as the day of Christ's resurrection), whereas the eastern church includes them. The churches also start Lent on different days. Western churches start Lent on the 7th Wednesday before Easter Day (called Ash Wednesday). Eastern churches start Lent on the Monday of the 7th week before Easter and end it on the Friday 9 days before Easter.
Eastern churches call this period the 'Great Lent'. Purple is the symbolic color used in some churches throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals. Purple is used for 2 reasons. Firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion. And secondly because purple is the color associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ's resurrection and sovereignty
The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is called Mardi Gras which means "Fat Tuesday" in French. Mardi Gras, a celebration, sometimes called "Carnival," is practiced around the world, on the Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday. It was designed as a way to "get it all out" before the sacrifices of Lent began. New Orleans is the focal point of Mardi Gras celebrations in the U.S.

On Ash Wednesday, pastors mark the foreheads of Christians with ashes as a reminder that they are created from dust and to dust they shall return. Lent is traditionally a period of fasting and repentance in preparation for Easter. It is a time for prayer and penance. Few people nowadays fast for the whole of Lent, although some do still fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and many believers give up certain foods or alcohol as a form of self-discipline.

Palm Sunday occurs on the Sunday before Easter Sunday in the Western Christian liturgical calendar. It signals the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week. The day commemorates the spreading of palms and clothing in Jesus' path as He entered Jerusalem prior to His crucifixion: they brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:7-9) Many churches re-enact Jesus' return to Jerusalem with a processional in which participants wave palm branches. In areas where palm trees are unavailable, branches of the pussy willow, yew, and spruce trees are often used.

Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, which was held the evening before the Crucifixion. Good Friday, the Friday before Easter, commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus, a sorrowful time in Christianity. In Eastern Orthodox churches, the observance is known as Great Friday. Good Friday has been observed since about 100 C. E. However, for many years it had no association with Jesus' death but was simply another day of fasting. Since the late fourth century, it has been associated with the crucifixion.

Many churches now have mourning services from noon until 3:00 p.m. to symbolize Jesus' last hours on the cross. Some congregations also re-enact Jesus' procession to the cross in a ritual known as Stations of the Cross. Eating hot-cross buns is one of the Good Friday customs that has taken root in America. They are non-Christian in origin, as the Anglo-Saxons used to consume cakes as part of the festivity welcoming spring.

Early missionaries from Rome despaired of breaking them of the habit, and got around the difficulty by blessing the cakes, drawing a cross upon them. The cross was a non-Christian symbol long before the crucifixion. Bread and cakes were sometimes marked with it in pre-Christian times. Two small loaves each with a cross on them were discovered under the ruins of Herculaneum, a city overwhelmed by volcanic ash in A.D. 79. It is probable that the crosses here had a non-Christian meaning like those which appeared on cakes associated with the worship of Diana.

Easter is observed by the churches of the West on the first Sunday following the full moon that occurs on or following the spring equinox (March 2I). So Easter became a "movable" feast that can occur as early as March 22 or as late as April 25. Christian churches in the East which were closer to the birthplace of the new religion and in which old traditions were strong, observe Easter according to the date of the Passover festival.

In the Eastern Orthodox churches before Pascha (Easter) a service of Holy Resurrection is held on Saturday night after Great Friday. At midnight, all church lights are turned out and the priest, lighted candle in hand, appears at the altar. He proclaims that Christ has risen and uses his candle to light the candles of members of the congregation. Congregants then turn to each other and say "Christ is risen" (Christos Anesti) and "He is risen indeed" (Alithos Anesti). After the service, a late dinner featuring red hard boiled eggs, soup, and cheese pie is eaten. The eggs are often tapped against each other. The person whose egg cracks the other's egg is said to have good luck in the year.

The Western churches celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the most joyous occasion in Christianity on Easter, which marks the end of Lent. According to the Gospel of St. John and other scriptures, Mary Magdalen arrived at Jesus' tomb only to find it empty. An angel told her that Jesus had risen and ascended into heaven. Many churches hold sunrise services on Easter Sunday to symbolize the return of light to the world after Jesus' resurrection. The day is observed with feasts and celebrations.

Happy Easter!

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