The History of Easter
Easter is a time of Joy - It is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus
Christ, the son of God.
Easter is the principal festival of the Christian church year. The origins of
Easter date to the beginnings of Christianity, and it is probably the oldest
Christian observance after the Sabbath (originally observed on Saturday, later
on Sunday). Later, the Sabbath subsequently came to be regarded as the weekly
celebration of the Resurrection.
Although principally a celebration commemorating the resurrection, the
celebrations of Easter have many customs and legends that are pagan in origin
and have nothing to do with Christianity
Scholars, accepting the derivation proposed by the 8th-century English scholar
St. Bede, believe the name Easter is thought to come from the Scandinavian
"Ostra" and the Teutonic "Ostern" or "Eastre," both Goddesses of mythology
signifying spring and fertility whose festival was celebrated on the day of the
vernal equinox. The English name "Easter" is much newer. When the early English
Christians wanted others to accept Christianity, they decided to use the name
Easter for this holiday so that it would match the name of the old spring
celebration. This made it more comfortable for other people to accept
The prechristian Traditions associated with the festival survive in the Easter
rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and in colored easter eggs, originally painted
with bright colors to represent the sunlight of spring, and used in Easter-egg
rolling contests or given as gifts
The Christian celebration of Easter embodies a number of converging traditions
with emphasis on the relation of Easter to the Jewish festival of Passover, or
Pesach, from which is derived Pasch, another name used by Europeans for Easter.
The Jewish Passover is celebrated during Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew
lunar year. It is an important feast in the Jewish calendar which is celebrated
for 8 days and commemorates the flight and freedom of the Israelites deliverance
from about 300 years of bondage in Egypt.
It was in during this Passover in 30 AD Christ was crucified under the order of
the Roman governor Pontius Pilate as the then Jewish high priests accused Jesus
of "blasphemy". The resurrection came three days later, on the Easter Sunday.
The early Christians, many of them being brought up in Jewish tradition regarded
Easter as a new feature of the Pascha (Passover). It was observed in memory of
the advent of the Messiah, as foretold by the prophets. And it is equanimous
with the proclamation of the resurrection. Thus the early Christian Passover
turned out to be a unitive celebration in memory of the
passion-death-resurrection of Jesus. However, by the 4th century, Good Friday
came to be observed as a separate occasion. And the Pascha Sunday had been
devoted exclusively to the honor of the glorious resurrection.
Throughout the Christendom the Sunday of Pascha had become a holiday to honor
Christ. At the same time many of the pagan spring rites came to be a part of its
celebration. May be it was the increasing number of new converts who could not
totally break free of the influence of pagan culture of their forefathers.
But despite all the influence there was an important shift in the spirit. No
more glorification of the physical return of the Sun God. Instead the emphasis
was shifted to the Sun of Righteousness who had won banishing the horrors of
death for ever.
The Feast of Easter was well established by the second century. But there had
been dispute over the exact date of the Easter observance between the Eastern
and Western Churches. The East wanted to have it on a weekday because early
Christians observed Passover every year on the 14th of Nisan, the month based on
the lunar calendar. But, the West wanted that Easter should always be a Sunday
regardless of the date.
To solve this problem the emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in
325. The question of the date of Easter was one of its main concerns. The
council decided that Easter should fall on Sunday following the first full moon
after the vernal equinox. But fixing up the date of the Equinox was still a
problem. The Alexandrians, noted for their rich knowledge in astronomical
calculations were given the task. And March 21 was made out to be the perfect
date for spring equinox.
Thus easter is observed by the churches of the West on the first Sunday
following the full moon that occurs on or following the spring equinox (March
2I). So Easter became a "movable" feast which can occur as early as March 22 or
as late as April 25
Christian churches in the East which were closer to the birthplace of the new
religion and in which old traditions were strong, observe Easter according to
the date of the Passover festival.
"Prophets died, saints died, great men died - none of them ever returned to
life. When Christ died some people remembered that he had foretold his
Behind the festive joys, feast, fun and family enjoyment, Easter reminds all of
a significant event. The event that Jesus Christ was resurrected, after having
suffered and died. It reminds you that Christ, who was crucified on, what is now
called, the Good Friday, showed himself up on the Easter. So, it is a time to
celebrate. To celebrate - that Lord, who appeared on Earth for the good of
mankind, is always with us.
That Jesus would resurrect was foretold. The saying came as one of his
And, with memories sharpened by hatred, his enemies were the first to remember
his prophecy. Hardly had he been buried when they approached the Roman Governor
Pontius Pilate with a request to guard the tomb. Pilate gave them soldiers and
instructed them to secure the tomb. They went, sealed the stone that closed the
entrance, and set the guards to keep watch day and night.
During the night of Friday, the day of his Crucifixion, through to Saturday,
nothing had really happened. So did go the the whole of Saturday, the weekly
rest day in Jerusalem then.
The things turned different on the early morning of the Sunday, the third day
since Jesus was crucified. There was a great uproar and the guards of the tomb
were all struck by lightning. for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and
came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His face shining like lightning
and his garments white as snow. At this sight, the soldiers trembled with fear
and remained as dead men. When they came to their senses there was no point in
watching over an empty tomb any longer.
They went to report the chief priest about the incident. In reply they were
asked to distort the truth. And spread a story that the body of Jesus was stolen
by his own disciples when the guards were asleep during the night.
Meanwhile, early on the following morning, that was Sunday morning, some holy
women started for the tomb. They were surprised to see that the stone had been
moved aside. They entered the tomb. And found it empty. As they wondered what
all these meant, two angels appeared. The angels told them that Jesus had risen
again, as he had already told.
Soon Peter, the chief of Jesus' twelve apostles got there along with John, his
junior. They found only the linen and the piece of cloth used to wrap his body
lied in the empty tomb. Puzzled, they left.
But Jesus was yet to appear in front of them. Instead, Jesus went farther. He
turned up to join two of his disciples who were journeying from Jerusalem to a
village called Emmaus. However, Jesus did not make himself known to them. Jesus
to them came to be known as a stranger who had real mastery over the holy
Scriptures. Impressed they invited Jesus to stay with them and share their meal.
Jesus agreed. But when at the table they recognized Jesus, he disappeared.
In no time the two disciples headed for Jerusalem. When they met the apostles
and told them about everything happened, Jesus made his appearance. And Jesus
convinced them all that he was alive and asked them if anything was there to
eat. Then he ate in their presence as a living man does. With this everybody
there became overwhelmed with joy that their master had returned to life. And
life again had become meaningful to the apostles.
Jesus had eaten with them. Talked to them in a familiar manner. And finally he
reminded them that he had come from heaven, sent by his Father to perform a
task. Now, the task had been done by offering his life for the sins of mankind,
it is time for the apostles to follow his suit. And Jesus gave the apostles the
Holy Spirit: the power over sin. So one whose sins are forgiven by the apostles,
would be forgiven by the heaven. After this Jesus left, as suddenly as he came
Jesus returned to the same place on the Sunday next, to make believe the
unbelievers. And Jesus showed himself now and then to teach his apostles the
lessons and to teach them to live without him. Jesus did this for a period of
On the fortieth day of reappearance, when he felt he had given the disciples all
that he had to, he went back to the heaven. Never to come back.
However, he had left his disciples to carry on his work and to reach his message
of love and peace to all.
This strange custom originated in Bavaria in the fifteenth century. The priest
inserted in his sermon funny stories which would cause his hearers to laugh
(Ostermärlein), e.g. a description of how the devil tries to keep the doors of
hell locked against the descending Christ. Then the speaker would draw the moral
from the story. This Easter laughter, giving rise to grave abuses of the word of
God, was prohibited by Clement X (1670-1676) and in the eighteenth century by
Maximilian III and the bishops of Bavaria (Wagner, De Risu Paschali, Königsberg,
1705; Linsemeier, Predigt in Deutschland, Munich, 1886).
In France handball playing was one of the Easter amusements, found also in
Germany (Simrock, op. cit., 575). The ball may represent the sun, which is
believed to take three leaps in rising on Easter morning. Bishops, priests, and
monks, after the strict discipline of Lent, used to play ball during Easter week
(Beleth, Expl. Div. off., 120). This was called libertas Decembrica, because
formerly in December, the masters used to play ball with their servants, maids,
and shepherds. The ball game was connected with a dance, in which even bishops
and abbots took part. At Auxerre, Besancon, etc. the dance was performed in
church to the strains of the "Victimae paschali". In England, also, the game of
ball was a favourite Easter sport in which the municipal corporation engaged
with due parade and dignity. And at Bury St. Edmunds, within recent years, the
game was kept up with great spirit by twelve old women. After the game and the
dance a banquet was given, during which a homily on the feast was read. All
these customs disappeared for obvious reasons (Kirchenlex., IV, 1414).
Men and women
On Easter Monday the women had a right to strike their husbands, on Tuesday the
men struck their wives, as in December the servants scolded their masters.
Husbands and wives did this "ut ostendant sese mutuo debere corrigere, ne illo
tempore alter ab altero thori debitum exigat" (Beleth, I, c. cxx; Durandus, I,
c. vi, 86). In the northern parts of England the men parade the streets on
Easter Sunday and claim the privilege of lifting every woman three times from
the ground, receiving in payment a kiss or a silver sixpence. The same is done
by the women to the men on the next day. In the Neumark (Germany) on Easter Day
the men servants whip the maid servants with switches; on Monday the maids whip
the men. They secure their release with Easter eggs. These customs are probably
of pre-Christian origin (Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Das festliche Jahr, 118).
The Easter Fire
The Easter Fire is lit on the top of mountains (Easter mountain, Osterberg) and
must be kindled from new fire, drawn from wood by friction (nodfyr); this is a
custom of pagan origin in vogue all over Europe, signifying the victory of
spring over winter. The bishops issued severe edicts against the sacrilegious
Easter fires (Conc. Germanicum, a. 742, c.v.; Council of Lestines, a. 743, n.
15), but did not succeed in abolishing them everywhere. The Church adopted the
observance into the Easter ceremonies, referring it to the fiery column in the
desert and to the Resurrection of Christ; the new fire on Holy Saturday is drawn
from flint, symbolizing the Resurrection of the Light of the World from the tomb
closed by a stone (Missale Rom.). In some places a figure was thrown into the
Easter fire, symbolizing winter, but to the Christians on the Rhine, in Tyrol
and Bohemia, Judas the traitor (Reinsberg-Düringfeld, Das festliche Jahr, 112
Processions and awakenings
At Puy in France, from time immemorial to the tenth century, it was customary,
when at the first psalm of Matins a canon was absent from the choir, for some of
the canons and vicars, taking with them the processional cross and the holy
water, to go to the house of the absentee, sing the "Haec Dies", sprinkle him
with water, if he was still in bed, and lead him to the church. In punishment he
had to give a breakfast to his conductors. A similar custom is found in the
fifteenth century at Nantes and Angers, where it was prohibited by the diocesan
synods in 1431 and 1448. In some parts of Germany parents and children try to
surprise each other in bed on Easter morning to apply the health-giving switches
(Freyde, Ostern in deutscher Sage, Sitte und Dichtung, 1893).
Blessing of food
In both the Oriental and Latin Churches, it is customary to have those victuals
which were prohibited during Lent blessed by the priests before eating them on
Easter Day, especially meat, eggs, butter, and cheese (Ritualbucher, Paderborn,
1904; Maximilianus, Liturg. or., 117). Those who ate before the food was
blessed, according to popular belief, were punished by God, sometimes
instantaneously (Migne, Liturgie, s.v. P&aicrc;ques).
On the eve of Easter the homes are blessed (Rit. Rom., tit. 8, c. iv) in memory
of the passing of the angel in Egypt and the signing of the door-posts with the
blood of the paschal lamb. The parish priest visits the houses of his parish;
the papal apartments are also blessed on this day. The room, however, in which
the pope is found by the visiting cardinal is blessed by the pontiff himself
(Moroni, Dizionariq, s.v. Pasqua).
Sports and celebrations
The Greeks and Russians after their long, severe Lent make Easter a day of
popular sports. At Constantinople the cemetery of Pera is the noisy rendezvous
of the Greeks; there are music, dances, and all the pleasures of an Oriental
popular resort; the same custom prevails in the cities of Russia. In Russia
anyone can enter the belfries on Easter and ring the bells, a privilege of which
many persons avail themselves.