Easter

At Easter time, Christians think about the events that are at the heart of their faith – the crucifixion and the belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Read on to find out more about Easter, its traditional meaning and origins, and its modern celebrations.

Easter rabbit eggs by Neal Fowler

What is Easter?

Easter is the Christian festival celebrating the belief that Jesus Christ was resurrected and returned to life after his death by crucifixion. Some pre-Christian festivals are likely to have influenced Easter – you can find out more about these by reading about Easter’s Pagan origins.

Because the Biblical events took place during the Jewish feast of Passover, Easter, like Passover, is determined by the lunar calendar: it is the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring equinox. This means it can be any time between late March and late April. In 2015, Good Friday falls on April 3rd and Easter Sunday falls on April 5th.

For many people, Easter is the end of winter, and directly associated with spring. As Easter time falls into the same time of the year as lambing season, lambs and Easter are often linked in people’s minds.

Lent

Easter is preceded by Lent, a period of forty days during which fasting, or at least some kind of austerity, is practised. There used to be strict rules about this, such as a prohibition on eating meat during Lent. These days, people tend to make some small sacrifice, for example giving up sweets and chocolates for Lent. Others do not practise any particular austerity, but many Christians may engage in a programme of prayer or Bible study.

pancake - photo by Amanda Slater

Shrove Tuesday

The day before the beginning of Lent is called Shrove Tuesday or, more familiarly, Pancake Day. It is called this because traditionally people would make pancakes to use up the fat and sugar in the house before the beginning of the fasting season.

Mothering Sunday

The Sunday halfway through Lent is a day when people pay special honour to their mother by buying her a card and a present or flowers or taking her out for a meal. In Britain, Mothering Sunday has merged with the traditions of Mother’s Day that have evolved in the Western World in the last 100 years. Originally, Mothering Sunday was a day when servants were released to meet with their families, and go to Church together. It was actually ‘Mother Church’ that the day was named after, rather than a physical mother.

Palm Sunday

The Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday, commemorating the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and was hailed as the Messiah. The Bible story says that people pulled branches off the palm trees and waved them to welcome him. Some churches hold processions with palms on that day. In Wales, it is customary for people to place flowers on the graves of their deceased relatives. Welsh people often call it ‘Sul y Blodau’, or ‘Flowering Sunday’.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he made a demonstration of protest in the temple. This led on to a sharp confrontation with the authorities, resulting in his condemnation and execution within the week. Christians call this ‘Holy Week’, and often mark it with services each day.

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday commemorates the last supper of Jesus with his disciples before he was crucified and his command that they love one another. In keeping with this there is an ancient tradition of the Monarch giving a purse of money to a group of deserving people. The number of people being given money is determined by the Monarch’s age (which this year will be 89).

hot cross buns - photo by Tim Collins

Good Friday (bank holiday)

The next day is called ‘Good Friday’ (‘good’ is an old English word for ‘holy’). This is a day of solemn services, thinking of the suffering and death of Jesus. In Britain, one tradition associated with this day in particular is the eating of hot cross buns – where the cross is seen as symbol of the crucifixion by many people.

Easter Day

The following Sunday is Easter Day, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from death and the faith that he is alive forever. This is the most joyful day of the Christian year.

Easter Monday (bank holiday)

The Monday following Easter Sunday is a bank holiday in Britain, and an official holiday in most Christian nations around the world. While the day does not celebrate a specific event, there are many different traditions for Easter Monday, all around the world. The most obvious tradition is to use the 4-day weekend for a brief vacation…

Easter eggs

Whether people take the religious meaning seriously or not, Easter is the first public holiday of the year, and there is a feeling of winter being over and spring on the way. There is a tradition of decorating the shells of eggs at Easter time, but today people usually give each other chocolate ‘Easter eggs’. The egg is an ancient symbol of new life. It’s also one of the foods traditionally forbidden during Lent, so eating eggs at Easter was a good way to use up accumulated stockpiles of eggs.

The Easter Bunny

A bunny and a chocolate Easter bunny - photo by Mark Fosh

One of the most peculiar – and least explicable – icons of Easter is the Easter Bunny. In much of Western Europe, it’s a hare, rather than a bunny, who paints and delivers the eggs. In some regions, it’s foxes, cuckoos and even cockerels that deliver the eggs. And in Australia, because rabbits are considered pests, there have been recent moves to replace the Easter Bunny with an Easter Bilby.

A popular explanation is that the Easter Bunny is an urban protestant invention – because protestants do not observe Lent, they had to find a way to explain to their children why, at Easter, the most widely-eaten food was eggs. Instead of going into details about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, they invented the Easter Bunny and used the festival to have some fun with decorating eggs. It is documented that the decoration of eggs originated in around 1700 in urban protestant regions, but whether the Easter Bunny is their invention too has not been proven conclusively.

Easter bonnets

Another tradition associated with Easter is the production of Easter bonnets. These decorated hats are mostly made by children in schools these days, although some enthusiastic students have been known to intersperse their exam revision time with a brief diversion, and manufacture bonnets of their own. Children often try to raise money for charity and sell the bonnets to their parents.