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Updated on April 6, 2009

What Is Easter?

Easter celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the most important feast in the Christian calendar.

Easter Sunday does not come on the same date every year, but falls sometime between March 22 and April 25. It falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following March 21, the vernal equinox (the time in spring when day and night are of equal length). The date of Easter Sunday was established by the church council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

Easter Sunday ends a period of preparing for the feast of Easter. This forty-day period of prayer and fasting, called Lent, begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. The Lenten fast commemorates Christ's forty-day fast in the desert.

The week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday is known as Holy Week. During Holy Week, church services remind one of the last days of Christ's life on earth. Palm Sunday marks Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Holy Thursday, also called Maundy Thursday, marks the Last Supper. Good Friday marks Christ's crucifixion, and Easter Sunday, his resurrection.

There are many customs that have developed around Easter. The custom of a sunrise service on Easter Sunday can be traced to ancient spring festivals that celebrated the rising sun. The new clothes worn on Easter Sunday are a symbol of new life. The custom comes from the baptism on Easter Sunday of early Christians, who were led into the church wearing new robes of white linen.

The familiar Easter parade goes back to the Middle Ages, when people walked about the countryside on Easter, stopping along the way to pray. Now, of course, it presents an opportunity for people to see and show their new spring clothes.

The egg is an Easter symbol, because it is a symbol of life. The Persians and Egyptians also coloured eggs and ate them during their new year's celebration, which came in the spring.

Easter, the greatest of all Christian feasts, in commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ. The Greek, and hence the Latin Vulgate, name for this feast is the Pasch, i.e. Passover, the Jewish feast with which the death and Resurrection of Christ coincided, and whose prophetic meaning they are claimed to have fulfilled. Easter is thus the Paschal feast, the Christian Passover. The English name 'Easter', and the German Ostern are said to be derived from 'Ostera', a Teutonic goddess whose feast was celebrated by the ancient Saxons early in the spring.

Some definite way of fixing a date for Easter, upon which many other festivals of the Church depend, became necessary very early. There was much difference of opinion; the party known as Quartodecimans in Asia Minor celebrated the death and resurrection together on the same day as that of the Jewish Passover, the 14th Nisan, claiming the authority of St John the Apostle for so doing; but Rome rejected it, saying that Christ's Resurrection took place on the first day of the week after the Passover, and ought in that case to be kept on a Sunday. In AD 325 the Council of Nicaea settled that Easter should be held on the 1st Sunday after the 14th day of the moon that occurred next after the vernal equinox (i.e. the 14th Nisan), and that if the 14th day of the moon fell on the day of the equinox, the following Sunday was to be Easter Sunday. The vernal equinox came to be assumed to fall every year on 21 March. It was later directed that this calculation should be made according to the tables of Victorius of Aquitaine, which he introduced in AD 457. As Britain was now no longer a part of the Roman Empire, this 6th-century order regulating Easter had no effect at first on the British Church, which continued its calculation on older methods. After more than a century of controversy the matter was ultimately settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664; and after this date the British clergy conformed to the general practice of the Western Church.

As at present ordained, Easter falls on one of 35 days (22 March-25 April). Because of the social and commercial importance of the Easter holiday, there is growing support for the adoption of a fixed Easter. In the rite of Easter eve, now once more performed at midnight, the Latin Church, amid many beautiful ceremonies, kindles new fire, and lights a paschal candle representing the new light of Christ. This may be derived from the renewal at Rome of the sacred fire in the temple of Vesta every year on 1 March, once the beginning of the Roman year. Bonfires are still lit by the priest on Easter eve in many parts of Europe, especially Germany. The Easter fire of Germany corresponds to the Beltane fire of Celtic Europe, which had the same ceremonies and beliefs, namely, that wherever the light of the fire reached, the fields would be fruitful and the inhabitants safe from sickness and danger. Festivities were also held to celebrate Easter, such as dramatic performances, dances, songs, etc., and special cakes were made of which the present-day 'hot-cross buns' (bearing a representation of the cross) and 'simnel cakes' are relics. The custom of giving Easter eggs, as symbols of resurrection, life, and fruitfulness, is very ancient and widespread, especially in Europe. It perhaps derives from the days when eggs and cheese were forbidden in Lent.


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