Christians all over the world are preparing themselves for Easter, a celebration that is the pinnacle of the ecclesiastical calendar and, as one expert called it, the “heart” of the faith.
“Easter commemorates the fact that Christ rose from the dead the Sunday after his crucifixion [therefore] it is the most important feast in the Christian tradition,” said Monsignor Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian church in Washington, D.C.
“Although a lot of people are sentimental about Christmas, there would be no Christmas without Easter,” he added.
In fact, the dates of all the other moveable Christian feasts depend on the Easter date, which is the first Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox on March 21.
Experts say Easter is as old as Christianity itself.
“Easter was celebrated right from the beginning,” Pope said.
In recognition of the profound significance of Jesus’ resurrection, for example, the early Christians moved worship services from Saturday to Sunday, making every Sunday a “mini-Easter,” Pope said.
While Easter began at Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, however, its roots are buried in the Jewish feast of Passover, so much so that some cultures—Spanish, French—take their name for Easter from the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach.
According to the Bible, at The Last Supper, Jesus, himself, observed Passover, which commemorates God’s deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. According to Judeo-Christian doctrine, God slayed all of Egypt’s firstborns, as the last of 10 plagues called down on the nation by Moses, so that pharaoh would free the Israelites. To be spared the Egyptians’ fate, the Israelites had to kill a lamb and smear its blood across their doors so that the angel of death would pass over them.
That lamb was a symbol for Jesus, who became the Passover or Paschal lamb when he died, Christians believe.
“Christ is now our Passover lamb, who makes sure death [the penalty of sin] passes over us,” Pope, the Washington priest, said.
There are many Christians, however, who denounce Easter and its traditions as being pagan in their origins, beginning with the very word “Easter.” Even the Catholic Church acknowledges the observance’s pagan influences.
“Since Bede the Venerable (an eighth century monk and scholar) the origin of the term for the feast of Christ’s Resurrection has been popularly considered to be from the Anglo-Saxon Eastre, a goddess of spring…the Old High German plural for dawn, eostarun; whence has come the German Ostern, and our English Easter,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia notes.
Pope and others argue, however, that such pagan connections are mostly “coincidental” and part of the Christian practice of “enculturation.” For example, he said, most cultures celebrate changes in seasons such as the winter solstice, spring equinox and summer solstice, some of which coincide thematically and chronologically with Christian observances. Spring, for example, is a perfect metaphor for the new beginning created by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
“A lot of authentic religious traditions come out of practices that would be considered decadent or bad but, because something has a ‘bad’ origin, it doesn’t mean it’s bad,” said Monsignor Christian Pereira, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in San Fernando, Trinidad.
“One of the great things about Christianity is taking aspects of different cultures that may be considered pagan or bad and making them into something noble,” he added.
One of those adaptations was the incorporation into Easter of eggs, as in the annual Easter “egg-roll" on the lawn of the White House on Easter Monday. The egg is a pagan emblem of the germinating life of early spring that was used beginning with ancient civilizations.
“The Persians and Egyptians exchanged eggs that were decorated in spring colors as a way of celebrating the spring and the early Christians sort of adopted that,” said Anne Effland, a historian and a social science analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A more obscure explanation revolves around the North African man who helped Jesus during his arduous journey to the cross, Effland added.
“Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry the cross with Jesus, was an egg merchant, and when he returned home after the event (the crucifixion) all of his hens’ eggs had turned colors, into rainbow colors,”the historian said.
The Easter bunny—another pagan sign of fertility and spring—is a later adaptation of German origin.
“The German story is that there was a poor woman who had decorated eggs for her family to find during a famine—I think the [decorations] were to identify which were their eggs,” Effland explained. “When they found them, they found them in a nest, and they looked up and saw a rabbit hopping away and that’s how they decided the rabbit had brought the eggs.”
The folk tale led to the custom of children hiding their hats and bonnets around the house, with the hope that the bunny would leave eggs in them.
Easter baskets may have also emerged from that convention, as well as from a Catholic practice of taking the post-Lentern Easter meal to the mass to be blessed.
The traditions vary within Christian denominations—Catholic observations tend to be much more elaborate—and vary among cultures. For example, in Europe, celebrants used to light Easter fires on mountaintops, a practice of pagan origins that was later modified and incorporated into the church as a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus, the “Light of the World,” from the tomb and the victory of light over darkness. In some places a figure was thrown into the Easter fire, symbolizing winter, or, to some, Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus.
Similarly, in some Caribbean communities, effigies of Judas Iscariot and others are displayed publicly and whipped on Good Friday.
“People remember the destructive work of Judas in betraying Christ and make effigies of people who betray society and humanity in general and would just beat them,” Father Pereira said.
Also, in Trinidad, Easter is commemorated by flying kites, a joyous confirmation of renewal after Lent, a 40-day period of abstinence, soul-searching and prayer from which practicing Christians expect to emerge stronger in faith.
“The image of the kite rising is a sign of how even in the midst of the winds of life, human life is meant to soar to great heights,” Pereira said.
The change from real eggs to chocolate eggs and bunnies, jelly beans and marshmallow chicks, and the practice of wearing new clothes and new bonnets are newer elements of Easter and signs of the commercialization and secularization of the religious celebration, the pastors agreed.
“At some level, the secularization has been to drop Easter altogether—people used to get Easter Friday and Monday off, now they have to work, schools are still open…. It’s almost forgotten.”