Easter – History and Celebration in America and Around the World
When Easter time is near, we get ready to celebrate. People buy new outfits for church and families get together to worship and have a festive holiday meal. Everyone and everything is awash with pastel and spring colors. It is a time of celebration in different ways all around the world.
But, where did the celebration of Easter come from and how do people outside of the United States observe it? You might be interested to know that Peter Cottontail is not the main focus of the holiday. For parents and children alike, it is helpful to know just where the celebration of this holiday began and where it has led us to today.
So, as you prepare for another spring punctuated by the Easter season, read this report with new eyes and a new understanding of what Easter means. You may even come up with ideas for traditions you might want to adopt this year and continuing.
Keep reading and you shall find out a wealth of information not only about Easter but also the symbols associated with the celebration, like the Easter bunny and the Easter egg, that have become so endearing to us. Also, discover how people in other towns, cities, states, countries and continents honor the season of Easter and why.
HISTORY OF EASTER
So, where did it all begin? Experts and historians have speculated that Easter was not a religious holiday as it is celebrated today, but began as a pagan holiday. This means that it was celebrated first by those who really had no religious affiliation. They were worshipping the earth and the seasons that it brought forth. The modern day Easter celebration is believed to be a conglomeration of these pagan festivals, a new religion called Christianity and Judaism. So, letís begin our journey back in time there.
Ostara or Eostre Festival
This was the name given to the Saxon goddess of spring and fertility. These ancient people celebrated the return of spring each year by worshipping this goddess to bless their land and harvests.
In Greek mythology, the story of Demeter and Persephone is similar. During the spring, Persephone was allowed to return from the underworld to Earth to spend time with her mother.
This pagan festival was celebrated during the time of the vernal or spring equinox, around March 21st. The vernal equinox represents the point when the day and night are of equal duration. When early Christians encountered these people in an attempt to convert them to Christianity, they did so by slowly converting the practices of the people and then the people themselves. Basically, the spring festival of Eostre, or Eastre, was incorporated with Christian practices to make the transition easier to the new religious views.
As it happens, the spring festival of Eastre occurred at about the same time as the celebration of Passover in the Jewish nation. Passover was observed on the 14th day of Nisan based on the lunar calendar. This was a celebration dating back to the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt. It commemorates the blood of the lamb placed on doorposts to protect the Israelites from death. People took their families and journeyed back to their home cities to celebrate the feast with family. The Sunday of Easter was referred to as Pascha, or Passover.
Jesus and Christianity
The spring festival also coincided with the observance of the resurrection of Christ by the early Christian church. During a Passover celebration, Jesus Christ was crucified under the orders of Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Three days later he rose from the tomb (His glorious resurrection) giving hope to his young disciples and other followers.
During the second century, the observance of Eastre became known as Easter. There was also a fundamental shift in the object of the celebration. The time of worshipping a sun goddess was being exchanged for worshipping the object of the new converts, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The new issue became when to celebrate this observance. There was dispute as to the exact day. In the West, it was believed that the celebration should be on the Sunday after the spring equinox. In the East, it was believed that a day through the week that corresponded to the established time of the traditional Passover was more appropriate.
In A.D. 325, the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. It was here that the Easter Rule was established. The rule stated that Easter was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal or spring equinox. It also established that the official symbol of Christianity was the cross, although it has become synonymous with Easter celebrations.
The date of the equinox was quite elusive, however. Solving the problem fell to the Alexandrians, masters of astrological knowledge. They fixed the date as March 21st. A caveat to the Easter Rule referred to the ecclesiastical full moon and not the astronomical full moon. This allowed the date of Easter to be a ìmovableî one, allowing for any Sunday between the March 22 and April 25 for the celebration to take place. There are churches in the East that still celebrate in accordance with the Jewish Passover festival.
But, Easter is not just about one day. It is a season of celebration that begins with Lenten season which starts on Ash Wednesday. Lent means ìfast.î Traditionally during this time people fasted for 40 days and 40 nights to represent the days that Jesus spent being tempted by Satan in the desert. It is where the idea of ìgiving upî something for Lent came into being.
Did you know that the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is actually 46 days? Sundays were considered holy days and thus a day of celebration. The fasting regimen was suspended on that day and people could eat again each Sunday.
The last day before Ash Wednesday is known as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (ìMardi Grasî in French). It was a day of celebration before fasting began. In the United States, this festival is still observed in New Orleans, Louisiana.
This is the Sunday before Easter. It corresponded to the beginning of the Passover season in ancient times when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem for the last time. According to the Bible, people laid palm leaves in his path to represent and commemorate their saviorís return. In Christian churches, palm leaves are burned and the ashes used to form a cross on the foreheads of the parishioners.
This is also called ìMaundy Thursday.î It is the day of the feast of the Last Supper when Jesus ate and drank for the last time with his followers.
This day represents the actual crucifixion day of Jesus Christ. In some countries they eat hot cross buns, traditionally as a superstition to ward off evil.
This is a day of preparation for Sunday. People are still anticipating the return of Jesus. Traditionally, cooking is done for the following dayís celebration.
This represents the Sunday that Easter is actually celebrated, representing the resurrection of Jesus and his appearing to some of his followers. Different countries have their own traditions which we will discuss later on in this report.
Some countries observe the Monday after Easter as a holiday as well. Different traditions are observed such as Ducking Monday in Hungary. Young girls were thrown in lakes. They were told this practice made them better and more fertile wives.
The fifty days following Easter are observed by some as Eastertide, or Pentecost. It was the time during which Jesus ascended into Heaven and sent back his Holy Spirit to direct and guide his followers.
You may be wondering, after reading all of the history of Easter, how the egg and the Easter bunny came into being. Read on to find out.
Rabbits have long been used to symbolize fertility. Just look at what happens when you get two of them together! During the celebration of the pagan festival of Eastre, this goddess was worshipped through her symbol on earth ñ the rabbit. Both rabbits and hares symbolized spring.
The symbol of the Easter bunny was of German origin and didnít reach America until the Germans did in the 1700s. When they arrived in Pennsylvania Dutch country, they also brought the tradition of ìOschter Hawsî who would lay a nest of colored eggs for good girls and boys. Boys would use their caps and girls their bonnets to make nests in their homes for the white hare.
Those caps and bonnets later became Easter baskets. American children that adopted the tradition used sticks to build their nests in the garden for their eggs. That hare eventually became the Easter Bunny and not only did he leave eggs but confections as well.
Eggs, as you might imagine, represent new life – as did the festival of spring that was celebrated by the pagans. This was followed by many people all over the world. Eggs were painted and given to kids as presents at Easter in Germany.
In Jewish Passover, a boiled egg was a part of the Passover Seder. It was traditionally dipped in salt water to represent new life.
In medieval Europe, since eggs were considered dairy products, they were not eaten during Lenten season. Any eggs had to be consumed before this time and then again at Easter. Any leftover eggs were boiled to preserve them until they could be eaten again. In this way, they may have become associated with Easter. Eggs were given as gifts to children and servants on Easter.
People have given colored eggs to each other as Easter gifts in many countries. Bright colors painted on them represented the season of spring and new life. In Greece, exchanging red eggs symbolizes the blood of Christ shed at his crucifixion. Decorating eggs has become an art form in many countries today.
This is the flower most often purchased for homes and in remembrance of those who have passed during the Easter season. But, the Easter lily is not native to the United States. It was brought here from Bermuda in the 1880s. The lilies that were native to this country bloomed in the summer and not the spring at the time of Easter. Today, this flower has grown in popularity and is associated with this spring celebration.
Chocolate Easter Bunny
You canít think of Easter without thinking of the chocolate bunny. In fact, the first edible Easter bunny was made in Germany in the 1800s. It wasnít chocolate but a pastry and sugar bunny. Chocolate Easter bunnies came along in the early 19th century in Europe and then the rest of the world. Over 90 million chocolate bunnies are manufactured each year.
HOW EASTER IS CELEBRATED AROUND THE WORLD
With so much history about the season and the symbols, itís no wonder that different countries have their take on the traditions of Easter owing to their religious beliefs. Here are some of the different ways that it is celebrated.
Easter in America
Letís begin here and then move further east. As we discussed previously, the symbols of Easter came to America in the colonial times with the Germans. Until then, Easter was not much celebrated. The early settlers were here because of religious persecution. They had little time for festivals and celebrations, thinking them unproductive. Often, Easter passed solemnly. It wasnít until after the Civil War that Easter was even a widespread kind of celebration.
Today, Easter is celebrated with as much religious meaning as commercial in some spots. The main emphasis of the season is still the resurrection of Jesus Christ for those who practice Christianity. The United States was founded using Christian principles even though there is religious freedom.
As such, Lent, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are all observed in churches around the country. Families dress in their best to attend services. Children are often given gifts of Easter baskets laden with chocolate confections and toys. And, there is bound to be an Easter egg hunt going on somewhere, with the most famous one being held on the lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C.
Easter in Australia
The observance of Easter is usually on Sunday. Many attend church services. Hot cross buns are often eaten for breakfast and children receive chocolate eggs. Hollow eggs are also given that hide toys inside of them. Egg hunts are also conducted. A traditional meal of lamb or chicken is shared that day with family members.
Easter in Europe
Many of the modern symbols and traditions of Easter began in Europe, and Germany to be specific. In Germany today, Easter is referred to as ìOstern.î The period from Good Friday to Easter Sunday is observed as a holiday. Traditional meals of fish are eaten on Good Friday and bonfires are often held to celebrate the end of winter.
Eggs are also used a lot. Green eggs are used on Maundy Thursday. Egg shells are decorated; a needle is used to pierce the shell and blow out the contents. Dyed eggs are hung on trees throughout Easter week.
In England, chocolate eggs are given to children and often adults as well. They may be hidden in the house for kids to find. Hot cross buns are a favorite fruit bun to eat on this occasion, especially on Good Friday. Pancakes are eaten on Shrove Tuesday to mark the start of Lent.
In France, Easter is referred to as ìP‚quesî after Pascha or Passover. Observance of the Easter weekend is solemn as church bells do not ring for three days. Traditional Easter songs are sung as well. On Sunday morning, kids run to the window to try to catch the church bells ìflying back homeî after not having rung so long. At this time, parents rush to hide eggs for them to find later.
In Sweden, eggs are heavily featured in foods and parties, especially on Easter Saturday. Children often get hollow eggs filled with sweets and chocolates. Games like egg rolling and egg coloring are played. Bonfires are also set on Saturday to celebrate the season.
Easter in Africa
Here, Easter is celebrated mostly in churches. Many hold a mass at Easter where attendees hold a vigil starting around three in the afternoon and ending at dusk, at about six in the evening. Christian hymns and traditional African decorations are featured.
It is also a social event as families come together to share a meal and drink in celebration. Special foods and meat are eaten by Christians and non-Christians.
Easter in Mexico
Easter observance is a combination of two events: Semana Santa which is the celebration of Holy Week and Pascua which is the celebration of the period from Easter Sunday (resurrection Sunday) to the following Saturday.
People take the time to celebrate with family and friends. Lenten season is over. It is not uncommon to see re-enactments of the passion play beginning with the last supper and culminating with the resurrection.
Easter in Brazil
Easter is held here in autumn because of their geographical location. Brazil is the largest Catholic nation. Children are taught about Christ, his death and resurrection. A certain flower, the Macela flower grows during lent and is taken to the church to be blessed by the priest. It is then used to make medicines.
Traditional meals include chocolate Easter eggs, and ring cake. Meat is not eaten during Easter. It is a time to spend with family and in worship. There are festivals and Passion plays being held as well.
Easter in Canada
The country to our north celebrates Easter with church services as well as chocolate bunnies, eggs and other Easter gifts. There are a couple of events that are big there at this time: Bal en Blanc, a big rave party in Montreal, and the Winter Carnival in Quebec City.
Easter in India
Even though only about three percent of the population of this enormous country is Christian, there is much going on at Easter. For one, it symbolizes the end of the winter and the beginning of the spring season. There is much celebration among Christian believers.
Traditional foods eaten include simnel cakes and pancakes made on Shrove Tuesday. Christians attend church services to commemorate Jesusí suffering and resurrection. Like other countries, gifts of chocolate eggs, Easter bunnies and other gifts are given received and given by people. Good Friday is considered a national holiday by the government.
Easter is a holiday that is celebrated the world over. It may not have begun in a religious way but the main basis for its observance is its religious significance in the Christian world. Despite the commercial aspects, the true reason for the season has not been forgotten. How do you celebrate Easter where you live?