Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Easter is a religious holiday that commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after his death by crucifixion some 2,000 years ago. For Christians, Easter is a day of religious services and the gathering of family.
In many churches Easter is preceded by a season of prayer, abstinence, and fasting called Lent. This is observed in memory of the 40 days' fast of Christ in the desert. In Eastern Orthodox churches Lent is 50 days. In Western Christendom Lent is observed for six weeks and four days.
Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, gets its name from the practice, mainly in the Roman Catholic church, of putting ashes on the foreheads of the faithful to remind them that "man is but dust." Palm Sunday, one week before Easter, celebrates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Holy Week begins on this day. Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, is in memory of the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples. Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion.
Lent may be preceded by a carnival season. Elaborate pageants often close this season on Shrove Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent. This day is also called by its French name, Mardi Gras.
The name Easter comes from Eostre (pronounced yo'ster), an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess. In pagan times an annual spring festival was held in her honor. Some Easter customs have come from this and other pre-Christian spring festivals. Others come from the Passover feast of the Jews, observed in memory of their deliverance from Egypt.
The word paschal comes from a Latin word that means "belonging to Passover or to Easter." Formerly, Easter and the Passover were closely associated. The resurrection of Jesus took place during the Passover. Christians of the Eastern church initially celebrated both holidays together. But the Passover can fall on any day of the week, and Christians of the Western church preferred to celebrate Easter on Sunday, the day of the resurrection.
The Easter Bunny, a popular image of the holiday, originated with the hare, an ancient symbol for the moon. According to legend, the bunny was originally a large, handsome bird belonging to Eostre, the Goddess of Spring. (Eostre is also known as Ostara, a Goddess of fertility who is celebrated at the time of the Spring equinox.) She changed the bird into a rabbit, which explains why the Easter bunny builds a nest and fills it with colored eggs. The first edible Easter bunnies were made in Germany during the early 1800s. They were made of pastery and sugar.
Around the time of the Civil War, Americans began to celebrate Easter in much the same manner as Europeans, with children building nests for the Easter bunny to fill with eggs. Since that time, Easter has become a major religious and secular celebration in the U.S.
The egg is another popular symbol of Easter. Eggs were dyed and eaten during spring festivals in ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome. Colored eggs were not associated with Easter until the 15th century. Many Americans follow old traditions of coloring hard-boiled eggs and giving children baskets of candy. On the next day, Easter Monday, the president of the United States holds an annual Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn for young children.
The Easter Sunrise Service custom can be traced back to the ancient Pagan custom of welcoming the sun God at the vernal equinox - when daytime is about to exceed the length of the nighttime. It was a time to "celebrate the return of life and reproduction to animal and plant life as well."
At the feast of Eostre, an ox was sacrificed. The ox's horns became a symbol for the feast. They were carved into the ritual bread. Thus originated the "hot cross buns". The word "buns" is derived from the Saxon word "boun" which means "sacred ox."
Many superstitions grew out of this custom — a cross bun kept from one Good Friday to the next was thought to bring luck, the buns were supposed to serve as a charm against shipwreck, and hanging a bun over the chimneypiece ensured that all bread baked there would be perfect. Another belief was that eating hot cross buns on Good Friday served to protect the home from fire.
Today, the symbol of a symmetrical cross marked with white icing is used to decorate the buns; the cross represent the moon, the heavenly body associated with the Goddess, and its four quarters.
The white lily, the symbol of the resurrection, is the typical Easter flower. The white lily stands for purity. Artists for centuries have pictured the angel Gabriel coming to the Virgin Mary with a spray of lilies in his hand, to announce that she is to be the mother of the Christ child. The white Madonna lily was used for years as the Easter lily. It often failed to bloom in time for Easter, however, and so Bermuda, or white trumpet, lily was substituted. The Bermuda lily was brought to the United States from Bermuda in the 1880s by Mrs. Thomas P. Sargent of Philadelphia, and it has become a mainstay of Easter floral arrangements and church decorations.
Easter Candles are sometimes lit in churches on the eve of Easter Sunday. Some believe that these can be directly linked to the Pagan customs of lighting bonfires at this time of year to welcome the rebirth/resurrection of the sun God.