The History of Easter
- By Jenna Maxwell
Historical Background of Easter
Easter is arguably the most important holiday celebrated by Christians throughout the world. With its roots buried deeply in centuries-old traditions, the celebration of Easter marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many non-religious revelers, however, enjoy modern day Easter rituals and this springtime holiday has many traditions and festivities that are enjoyed by the masses. Easter has come to be one of the most popular spring celebrations. Usually tacked on to the beginning or the end of "spring break", most families have come to enjoy Easter as a time for family, fun and the enjoyment of warmer weather. Like many other holidays, the celebration of Easter began many centuries ago. Surprisingly enough, the very earliest celebrations of Easter likely had nothing to do with Christianity at all.
The Legend of Eostre
Long before Christianity came to Europe, ancient pagan people worshiped a wide variety of gods and goddesses. These gods and goddesses were centered on features of nature and the cycle of life. In those very earliest days, survival and life in general relied on the bounty of the earth. An unusually long winter or a season of poor harvest could have life changing ramifications to those that were so dependent on Mother Nature. The superstitious mindset of these early pagan people perpetuated the notion that gods and goddesses representing various parts of nature were forces at play. Showing gratitude and paying homage to various pagan deities became an important aspect of the lives of these very primitive people.
Eostre is thought to be the early pagan goddess of springtime, dawn, and fertility. The ancient pagans had a practice of worshipping Eostre around and during the time of the Vernal Equinox or the time of springtime's arrival. In these earliest days of history, the pagan people surely had no idea what caused spring to come or why it ever did. They falsely assumed it had to do with a deity. In this particular case, it was thought that Eostre brought spring to their land with her when she came to visit. When Eostre would arrive, the flowers would bloom, butterflies would fly, baby animals would be born, birds would chirp and the entire world would begin a cycle of rejuvenation. In order to ensure that springtime would continue to arrive each year at the appropriate time, a large festival or celebration was held by these people in order to honor of Eostre and the arrival of spring. The local villagers assumed, of course, that Eostre would be pleased by this celebration, enough to return to the village the subsequent year. One of the most common legends of Eostre tells of the goddess coming upon a bird whose wings had frozen during the winter, and the bird could no longer fly. The tale goes on to say that Eostre saved the bird by turning it into a rabbit. Because the rabbit had once been a bird, this unique rabbit had the ability to lay eggs. Does this sound a little bit familiar? Perhaps this legend was the earliest reference to the Easter Bunny.
Christianity and Easter
When Christianity spread throughout Europe, many of the old pagan holidays were changed or altered to fit the lifestyles of the people as well as meet the requirements of their new religion. It is very likely that Easter was one of these holidays. An old pagan holiday was probably adapted to a time of worship that held deep religious significance to all Christians. Easter no longer was a time to celebrate the arrival of spring as much as it was a time to remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In those very early days, Easter was held during the Vernal Equinox, or on March the 21, no matter what day of the week that happened to fall. In 325 A.D., the date of Easter was changed. Emperor Constantine decided that it was important for Easter always to fall on a Sunday. From that point forward, Easter would be held on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. Easter has been held according to this timeline ever since.
Passover and Easter
Passover and Easter will always be events that are closely intertwined. The Jewish celebration of Passover was in full swing at the time of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew) is the holiday that commemorates the delivery of the Israeli's out of Egypt after over three hundred years of enslavement. The Jewish religion reveres Passover as one of its most holy observances. Most of the very early followers of Jesus Christ were raised as Jews and even in our modern day some Christians will still celebrate and mark the time of Passover.
During the original night of Passover, God sent the Angel of Death to strike down every firstborn child or firstborn animal in all of Egypt. When the Angel of Death passed through the villages of Israelites, the homes were "passed over" and no such deaths occurred. The celebration of Passover has been a sacred observance ever since.
Easter itself marks the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, he lay in the tomb for three days and on the third day; he rose from the dead and left his tomb.
For many Christians, Lent is a symbolic time of prayer and fasting. Christians view the six weeks of Lent to represent the forty days and forty nights that Jesus Christ was said to spend in the Garden of Gethsemane fasting as he prepared for his death and his eventual resurrection. The Lenten period officially begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. Traditionally, Christians have viewed Lent as a time devoted to quiet thought in addition to abstinence from all fatty foods, most animal products, and meat. Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras), which occurs just prior to the onset of Lent, has become a traditional celebration filled with great feasting and indulgent behavior in preparation for the six long weeks of deprivation.
Although Easter will always be considered a very important religious holiday, many popular Easter traditions have been embraced by the masses and are enjoyed on more secular basis. More candy is sold for Easter than any other holiday except Halloween with 90 million chocolate bunnies and over 16 billion jellybeans being sold annually. Every Easter, children will be enjoying springtime Easter Egg hunts, dyeing and coloring boiled eggs and participating in Easter Egg Rolls. You can bet that most kids will be hoping for a special visit from the somewhat elusive Easter Bunny. Some will even create their own Easter Bunny Look! This Easter, approximately 88% of parents will be making Easter baskets for their children. Traditionally, many families will assemble and enjoy a special Easter dinner together in order to celebrate this beloved springtime holiday.
Easter Symbols and their Meanings
Bunny: The bunny has been deeply connected with Easter for centuries. Long a symbol of prolific fertility and abundant new life, the rabbit or hare has been viewed as a symbol of springtime since ancient times. The rabbit also tends to give birth to its litters around the date of the Vernal Equinox or around the advent of spring. German immigrants can likely take the credit for beginning the tradition of the Easter Bunny. Beginning in the 1700's, Pennsylvania Dutch settlers would teach their young ones about a legendary rabbit that had the ability to judge the behavior of children. At Easter time, the "Oschter Haws" (Easter Hare) would leave colored eggs, candy and small gifts to children who were well behaved. In anticipation, the youngsters would leave makeshift "nests" made from their upturned bonnets or caps in hopes that the "Oschter Haws" would come by and fill them with Easter treats.
Eggs: The egg is one of the oldest symbols of springtime, new life and fertility in existence. Bygone civilizations from deep in history as far back as the ancient Egyptians utilized the egg as part of their spring celebrations. The egg is thought to have become associated with Easter thousands of years ago. Some theorize that the egg symbolizes the tomb from which Jesus Christ emerged upon his resurrection. For centuries, the Christian church put a ban on eggs and other animal products during the period of Lent. When Lent came to an end on Easter, the egg became one of many special treats that could once again be consumed and enjoyed. Decorating eggs is also an ancient custom. In the late nineteenth century, members of both high society and royalty in Russia began to give each other lavishly decorated eggs as gifts for Easter. These very elaborate and sometimes jewel laden eggs became so popular that Czar Alexander III commissioned an artist named Peter Carl Faberge to create some very ornately decorated eggs that he could present as gifts to his wife. These eggs would go down in history as the much celebrated Faberge Eggs.
Cross: The cross may be one of the most visible symbols that Christians associate with Easter and Christianity, in general. During the time of Jesus, death by crucifixion was used to punish the very worst of criminals, as this method of death was not only humiliating but also excruciatingly painful. Jesus was sentenced to execution because he was accused of starting a rebellion against the governing forces of Rome and was allowing himself to be called "the King of the Jews." After Jesus' crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, the symbol of the cross took on great significance to Christians. To members of the Christian faith, the cross now represents forgiveness of sins, new life and a complete victory over death.
Easter Lilies: It has become a common practice to give gifts of Easter Lilies at Easter time. These attractive flowers have become a favorite symbol of Easter. The white blossoms are thought to represent purity. Giving a gift of these lovely white lilies at Easter time is a representative reminder that Easter is a time to celebrate life, joy, and hope.
Lamb: At Easter time, it is still very common to see the lamb used as a symbol. In ancient days, it was a common practice to sacrifice an unblemished lamb during Passover as an offering to God. The lamb would then be eaten on the first night of the celebration while the blood of that lamb would be used to mark the doorway of the home. This blood would indicate to the Angel of Death that had been sent to slay the firstborn of all the Egyptians, that this home should be "passed over." To Christians, the lamb also represents "the Lamb of God" or Jesus Christ.
Chicks: The symbol of the young chick is closely associated with the egg. Many ancient civilizations regarded the chick and the egg as symbols of fertility. To some cultures, the yellow chick hatching out of the egg was illustrative of the sun and warmth of springtime being reborn. Christians may feel that the chick hatching from the egg is symbolic of Jesus Christ leaving his tomb. When it comes to Easter, the chick clearly represents rebirth or new life.
Palm Branches: Christian tradition teaches that when Jesus came to Bethlehem, worshippers greeted him with the waving of Palm branches. Palm branches may have also been strewn along the path that Jesus would walk. In ancient days, the palm branch was an important symbol of victory, triumph and most of all, peace. Palm branches today are considered a symbol of Easter and are often carried by worshippers while in procession on the Sunday prior to Easter, Palm Sunday.
Hot Cross Buns: Hot Cross Buns are not just any old pastry. When it comes to Easter traditions, believe it or not, this tasty spiced bun goes way back into ancient history. As a matter of fact, Hot Cross Buns are thought to have been part of the pagan rituals that celebrated the goddess Eostre. These pagan celebrations pre-date Christianity or any Christian holidays.
The Hot Cross Bun is a yeast-leavened bun made with sweet ingredients such as raisins or sugar coated citrus fruits. Beginning in the twelfth century, monks began marking these tasty treats with the symbol of a cross. The buns were baked on Good Friday, as a symbolic remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The tradition of making Hot Cross Buns for Good Friday is one that has endured for centuries. The cross symbol on the buns is created with dough or sometimes the cross is sliced into the roll with a knife. Nowadays, Hot Cross Buns often have the cross symbol placed on them with icing.
Many superstitions regarding Hot Cross Buns have been passed on down through the ages. For example, it is widely believed that Hot Cross Buns baked on Good Friday will not spoil or mold for an entire year. Because of all the superstition that has traditionally surrounded these somewhat mysterious pastries, some folks began to save a Good Friday baked Hot Cross Bun to later use for medicinal purposes. Assuming that this sacred bun had the power to heal illnesses, sicknesses or maladies, some superstitious folks would hang a Hot Cross Bun in their home or their doorway in order to ward off any evil spirits.
Sharing a Hot Cross Bun with a friend is a time-honored tradition that is thought to create a uniquely strong bond between two friends. There is an old rhyme that has been passed on for hundreds of years that goes along with sharing a Hot Cross Bun with a friend on Good Friday.
The Hot Cross Bun was considered to be so sacred than an edict from Queen Elizabeth I in 1592 made it illegal to sell on ordinary days. The holy pastry was only to be sold for burials, Good Friday and Christmas. This edict forbidding the sale of Hot Cross Buns forced people to make them at home in their kitchens. Today, the tradition of making Hot Cross Buns for Easter remains very popular.
Candles: Lighting candles and sometimes bonfires for Easter celebrating has been a tradition for hundreds of years. To Christians, the Easter Candle has been thought to symbolize the eternal presence of Jesus Christ who to them is the "light of the world." Once the Easter Candle has been lit, it becomes an ever-present part of many Easter vigils in churches around the world.
Butterflies: Butterflies have profound significance for many Christians when it comes to Easter. The entire life cycle of the butterfly can be connected and compared to the life of Jesus Christ. The caterpillar phase of the butterfly is symbolic of Christ's life on earth. The cocoon stage symbolizes the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus Christ inside a tomb. The butterfly stage is symbolic of Jesus Christ rising from the dead during the resurrection.
Dress Up: Dressing up for Easter in Sunday best clothing continues to be a very popular custom for many Easter celebrants. Ancient superstition teaches that wearing new clothing on Easter Sunday will bring a year of good luck. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, wealthier New Yorker's would show off their new Easter apparel by parading in their finery along Fifth Avenue. Since this time and in spite of a rather snooty beginning, an annual Fifth Avenue Easter Parade has been held as a yearly tradition. These days, the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade is a lot more fun and festive than it was in its earlier days.
Some Christians believe that wearing new clothing on Easter is symbolic of new life and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The very earliest newly baptized members of the church were asked to wear new white clothing as a symbol of their conversion. Wearing "Easter best" clothing to Easter church services is a longstanding tradition that goes back for hundreds of years. Many churchgoers will choose to wear hats to their various religious services. These hats are often referred to as Easter bonnets.
Although Easter is arguably the most important holiday on the Christian calendar, there certainly is no reason that Easter can't be enjoyed on a more secular basis. Exchanging Easter baskets, holding Easter Egg hunts, and decorating and coloring Easter eggs are just a few of the fun activities that are enjoyable to the masses during this fun springtime holiday. Dressing up in festive spring clothing and going to visit the local Easter Bunny are other activities that children tend to get very excited about at Easter time. Families will often get together for Easter to eat a large meal and enjoy the time to reconnect with one another. Many folks feel springtime and Easter offer the promise of hope. No matter how you choose to celebrate your Easter, this beloved holiday provides a lot of opportunities for families to create many great memories together.
Happy Easter from your Friends at Halloween Express!
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