Easter Traditions, Explained

For Christians, Easter is a deeply religious holiday, celebrating the day Jesus arose from the dead after the Crucifixion. You won’t find them in the Bible, but many cherished Easter traditions have been around for centuries. These have become highly commercial events. But how did all the candy chicks, chocolate bunnies, and dyed eggs become such a large part of the celebration?

To start with, why is it called Easter?

Some claim that the word Easter derives from Eostre, a pagan goddess of spring and fertility. Prior to that, the holiday had been called Pasch (Passover), which remains its name in most non-English languages. In the past, Christian holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus roughly coincided with the pagan Teutonic springtime celebrations, which emphasized the triumph of life over death in north Europe. Christian Easter gradually absorbed the traditional symbols.

Why the eggs and bunnies?

According to folklore, Eostre found a bird dying from the cold and turned it into a rabbit so its fur would keep it warm—but that rabbit still laid eggs like a bird. The bunny paints and decorates the eggs as a gift to Eostre to show his loyalty and love. It’s possible this story is the reason that bunnies and birds—and chicks, are connected with the holiday. Also rabbits, known to be prolific pro creators, are an ancient symbol of fertility and new life.

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One tradition regarding Easter eggs is related to Mary Magdalene taunted by the emperor that Jesus’ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg she had in her hand turning red—and the egg turned bright red while he was still speaking.

In addition, for the 40 days leading up to Easter, known as Lent, Christians  pray, meditate, and make personal sacrifices like forgoing ordinary dietary items, such as meat, eggs, and milk. So for many years, Easter was known in Western Europe as Egg Sunday, for eating eggs and chocolate on that day was one of its joys. Those eggs were often presented in baskets lined with colored straw to resemble a bird’s nest. Orthodox Christians in the Middle East and in Greece painted eggs bright red to symbolize the blood of Christ.

Another typical Easter food is lamb. “Lamb is traditional because Jesus’ last supper was the Passover meal,”

Where does all the chocolate come from?bunny

The tradition of chocolate eggs began in 19th century. To receive the special Easter eggs, children were told to make nests from hats or baskets so the Easter Bunny could leave them there. The bunny delivers decorated chocolate eggs to well-behaved children on Easter Sunday – an Easter Santa Claus. Additionally, children often left out carrots for the bunny in case he got hungry from all his hopping. The largest Easter egg ever made was over 25 feet high and weighed over 8,000 pounds. It was built out of chocolate and marshmallow and supported by an internal steel frame.

Easter egg-related traditions include:

  • Egg rolling: In the U.S., the White House Easter Egg Roll, a race in which children push decorated, hard-boiled eggs across the White House lawn, is an annual event held the Monday after Easter. (Some people have considered egg rolling symbolic of the stone blocking Jesus’ tomb being rolled away, leading to his resurrection.)
  • Easter egg hunts: Parents would hide eggs for children to find.
  • Easter parades :After their baptisms, early Christians wore white robes all through Easter week to indicate their new lives.

easter parade 1Those who had already been baptized wore new clothes instead to symbolize their sharing a new life with Christ. In Medieval Europe, churchgoers would take a walk after Easter Mass, led by a crucifix or the Easter candle. Today these walks endure as Easter Parades. The Easter Parade tradition lives on in Manhattan, with Fifth Avenue from 49th Street to 57th Street being shut down during the day to traffic. Participants often sport elaborately decorated bonnets and hats and lovely clothes. The title song includes the lyrics:

“In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it/You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.”

  • Easter cards: Easter cards arrived in Victorian England, when a stationer added a greeting to a drawing of a rabbit.

How is the date for Easter determined?

Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. If the first full moon occurs on the equinox, Easter is the following Sunday. Thus, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. Equinox means ‘equal night’ and on the Equinoxes the day and night are of the same length. The March Equinox is also known as the Vernal Equinox. There are two equinoxes a year, one in March and one in September.

For the past 1500 years, March 21st has been used to represent the date of the March equinox (the real equinox might be a day or two different). It became more complicated in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII replaced the old Roman ‘Julian’ calendar (started by Julius Caesar) with a new more accurate ‘Gregorian’ calendar, which most people still use today.

In 1583, the Catholic Church began using 21 March under the Gregorian calendar to calculate the date of Easter, while the Eastern Churches have continued to use 21 March under the Julian calendar. The Catholic and Protestant denominations thus use an ecclesiastical full moon that occurs four, five or 34 days earlier than the eastern one.

What about manually?

Working out the date of Easter Day is extremely tricky and you need to be pretty good at Math to do it! There are still several version of how to calculate the date. Below is a version with all the complicated math already done (it works for the Gregorian calendar for the years 1900 to 2199), so all you have to do is:

  1. Divide the year number by 19:
    2009/19=105.73
  2. Multiple the number before the decimal point by 19 (105 for 2009):
    105×19=1995
  3. Then subtract the result from Step 2 from the year number:
    2009-1995=14
  4. Add 1: 14+1=15

Look up the ‘Golden Number’ in the following table (15 for 2009!).Untitled

Easter is on the first Sunday after the date in the table.
In 2016 Easter is on March 27th, so it works! Next year’s Easter (2017) will fall on April 16th. Try to work it out.

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