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Easter

How and when it is celebrated.
Rabbits, eggs and other Easter traditions

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The Christian Liturgical Calendar:

Until the 4th century CE, Easter and Pentecost were the only two holy days that Christians observed. Easter Sunday was the main day of celebration, formally recognized by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. Pentecost Sunday was also observed as a less important holy day, 7 weeks/49 days after Easter. Other occasions related to Jesus' execution were gradually added to the church calendar:

bullet Lent (in Latin: Quadragesima): This was a period of spiritual preparation for Easter which typically involves fasting, penance and prayer. It was originally established by various Christian groups as an interval ranging from a few days to several weeks. It was eventually fixed in the 8th century CE at 40 days. (The number 40 is one of many magical numbers with religious significance in the Bible. 40 days recalls the interval that Jesus, Moses and Elias spent in the desert. Other magical numbers were 3, 7, 12, and 70).  Among Roman Catholics, Lent lasts for 38 days spread across six and a half weeks before Easter; it starts on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Holy Thursday, and does not include Sundays. Other Western traditions observe Lent for 40 days, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday and also do not include Sundays. Among the Eastern Orthodox churches, it is a full eight weeks.

bullet Mardi Gres (a.k.a. Fat Tuesday and Shrove Tuesday): This is  held on Tuesday, the day before the first day of Lent. The reference to "fat" refers to the custom of eating righ fatty foods on the evening before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.
bulletAsh Wednesday: This is  held on the first day of Lent, a Wednesday.

bulletHoly Week: the week before Easter Sunday:

bullet Palm Sunday (a.k.a. Passion Sunday): This is held on the Sunday before Easter Sunday and begins Holy Week. It recalls Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem one week before his execution.

bulletHoly Monday commemorates Jesus' cleansing of the temple, when he committed aggravated assaulted against money changers and other commercial interests who had tables within the Temple. Some believe that this triggered his arrest and crucifixion. It certainly would have been considered an act of insurrection by the occupying Roman Army, particularly because it occurred so close to a Passover when nationalistic feelings among Jews were at an all-time high.

bulletHoly Tuesday recalls Jesus' description to his disciples on the Mount of Olives of the destruction of Jerusalem.

bulletHoly Wednesday (once called Spy Wednesday) recalls Judas' decision to betray Jesus in exchange for 30 pieces of silver.

bulletMaundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, Jesus agony in the garden and his arrest. "Maundy" is derived from the Latin "mandatum" (commandment of God in John 13:34-35 For centuries, people in authority have washed the feet of their followers on this day.

bulletGood Friday recalls Jesus' death on the cross. The origin of the word "good" has been lost. Some claim that it is a corruption of "God" and that the early Christians called this day "God's Friday." "God" morphed in to "good" just as "God be with you" has become "goodbye." Others claim that "good" refers to the blessings of humanity that Christians believe arose as a result of Jesus' execution.

"A fourth-century church manual, the Apostolic Constitutions, called Good Friday a 'day of mourning, not a day of festive Joy.' Ambrose, the fourth-century archbishop who befriended the notorious sinner Augustine of Hippo before his conversion, called it the 'day of bitterness on which we fast'." 10

bulletHoly Saturday (a.k.a. Easter Eve) is the final day of Holy Week and of Lent.

bulletEaster Sunday commemorates Jesus' resurrection. In the early church, converts were baptized into church membership on this day after a lengthy period of instruction. This tradition continues today in some churches.

bullet Feast of the Ascension (a.k.a Ascension Day) is a celebration of Jesus' ascension up into the clouds towards heaven. The event is described as happening on a Monday, one day after Jesus' ressurection, in Luke 24:51. The same author, writing in Acts 1:9, described as happening 40 days after his resurrection. The church celebrates the feast on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter Sunday. Although tradition states that it was first celebrated in 68 CE, it did not become formally recognized by the church until the late 3rd century.

bulletPentecost (a.k.a. Whit Sunday) is now celebrated 7 weeks/49 days after Easter Sunday. It recalls the visitation of the Holy Spirit to 120 Christians, both apostles and followers. They spoke in tongues (in foreign languages that they had not previously personally known) to the assembled crowd. Three thousand were baptized. The day was originally a Jewish festival which was called "Pentecost," because it was observed 50 days after Passover. (The Greek word for 50'th day is "pentecoste.") This is usually regarded as the date of the birth of the Christian church. The feast was mentioned in a 2nd century book, and was formally recognized in the 3rd century CE.

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How the date of Easter is determined:

It is important to realize that Easter is not celebrated at the anniversary of Jesus' death and reported resurrection. The year of his execution is unknown; estimates range from 29 to 33 CE. And so, the anniversaries of the actual events go unobserved year by year. Even if the year of Jesus' execution was known, there are differences in belief among Christians about whether whether the crucifixion happened on a Wednesday or a Friday. Also the date when Jesus is said to have been resurrected is not clear. The Bible describes some of his female followers as having discovered the empty tomb, but it is unclear whether Jesus' resurrection occurred that morning, or even the day before.

Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after MAR-20, the nominal date of the Spring Equinox. Many sources incorrectly state that the starting date of the calculation is the actual day of the Equinox rather than the nominal date of MAR-20. Other sources use an incorrect reference date of MAR-21.

A little known fact is that the timing of the full moon is based upon the Metonic Cycle, a method of calculating the date of the full moon  known to the ancient Greek astronomer Meton, who lived in the 5th century BCE. This calculation is only approximate; it occasionally diverges from the actual astronomical data. 5 For example, in the year 2019, the date of Easter according to a precise astronomical calculation will be MAR-24. However, the Western Church will observe it on APR-21. 6

Easter Sunday in the West can fall on any date from March 22 to April 25th. The year-to-year sequence is so complicated that it takes 5.7 million years to repeat. Eastern Orthodox churches sometimes celebrate Easter on the same day as the rest of Christendom. However if that date does not follow Passover, then the Orthodox churches delay their Easter -- sometimes by over a month. To make matters more complex, most Eastern Orthodox churches use the Julian Calendar which is currently offset by 12 days from the more generally used Gregorian Calendar.

Dates of Easter Sunday are listed below for years 1990 to 2049, both in the Christian West and East. 9 All dates are according to the Gregorian Calendar.

Date of Easter 9

See The Date of Orthodox Easter 1875 to 2124 for corresponding Eastern Orthodox dates, in both the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

Wikipedia provides the following table of dates for Easter Sunday during 2013 and surrounding years:

Dates of Easter 11

Although these dates were taken from sources that we believe to be reliable, do not rely on their accuracy. We cannot accept responsibility for any errors.

R.W. Mallen's "Easter Dating Method," shows for methods of calculating the dates of Easter Sunday, both for the Western and Orthodox churches. 1

Graeme Mcrae, a mathematician, calculated the date of Easter according to the Gregorian calendar for dates extending over 30 millennia, from 1583 to 31583 CE!. Some of his findings:

  • There are 35 possible dates.
  • They range from MAR-22 to APR-25.
  • APR-19 was the most common; it occurred 1,159 times.
  • APR-18 was the next most common at 1,043 times.
  • Dates from MAR-28 to APR-20 were relatively equal in frequency of occurrence. 7

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Easter Traditions:

These have been derived primarily from Pagan traditions at Easter time:

bulletHot Cross Buns: At the feast of Eostre, the Saxon fertility Goddess, an ox was sacrificed. The ox's horns became a symbol for the feast. They were carved into the ritual bread. Thus originated "hot cross buns". The word "buns" is derived from the Saxon word "boun" which means "sacred ox." Later, the symbol of a symmetrical cross was used to decorate the buns; the cross represented the moon, the heavenly body associated with the Goddess, and its four quarters.

bulletEaster Rabbit and Eggs:
bulletThe symbols of the Norse Goddess Ostara were the hare and the egg. Both represented fertility. From these, we have inherited the customs and symbols of the Easter egg and Easter rabbit.

bulletDyed eggs also formed part of the rituals of the ancient, pre-Christian Babylonian mystery religions. "The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of coloring and eating eggs during their spring festival." 2

bullet"Like the Easter egg, the Easter hare came to Christianity from antiquity. The hare is associated with the moon in the legends of ancient Egypt and other peoples....Through the fact that the Egyptian word for hare, UM, means also "open" and "period," that hare came to be associated with the idea of periodicity, both lunar and human, and with the beginning of new life in both the young man and young woman, and so a symbol of fertility and of the renewal of life. As such, the hare became linked with Easter...eggs." 2

bulletChristian tradition states that when Mary Magdalene visited Emperor Tiberias (14 - 37 CE), she gave him a red egg as a symbol of the Resurrection -- a symbol of new life. Some believe that the Christian tradition of giving eggs to each other at Easter time came from this event. 8

bulletEaster Lilies: "The so-called 'Easter lily' has long been revered by pagans of various lands as a holy symbol associated with the reproductive organs. It was considered a phallic symbol!" 3

bulletEaster Sunrise Service: This 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." 4 Worship of the Sun God at sunrise may be the religious ritual condemned by Jehovah as recorded in:
Ezekiel 8:16-18: "...behold, at the door of the temple of Jehovah, between the porch and the altar, were about five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of Jehovah, and their faces toward the east; and they were worshipping the sun toward the east. Then he said unto me, Hast thou seen (this), O son of man? Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here? for they have filled the land with violence, and have turned again to provoke me to anger: and, lo, they put the branch to their nose. Therefore will I also deal in wrath; mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity; and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them." (ASV)
bulletEaster Candles: These are sometimes lit in churches on the eve of Easter Sunday. Some commentators 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.

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References used in the above essay:

  1. R.W. Mallem "Easter Dating Method," at: http://www.assa.org.au/edm.html
  2. "Easter," Encyclopedia Britannica
  3. A. J. Dager, "Facts and Fallacies of the Resurrection," Page 5. Cited in: R.K. Tardo, "Rabbits, Eggs and Other Easter Errors," at: http://syscdj1.gmu.edu/ This essay is also no longer available.
  4. Arnold Gordon, untitled essay at: http://thezephyr.com/bible/bibleah.htm
  5. "Toward a Common Date for Easter," World Council of Churches / Middle East Council of Churches Consultation, 1997 at: http://www.elca.org/ea/
  6. "Table for finding Easter/Pascha dates," Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, at: http://www.elca.org/ea/
  7. "Distribution of Easters," Mathematics Enrichment, at: http://www.nrich.maths.org.uk/
  8. "Feasts and Saints of the Orthodox Church: July 22," Orthodox Church in America, at: http://www.oca.org/
  9. "Easter Sunday Dates" GM Arts, Popular Science section, at: http://www.gmarts.org/
  10. Chris Armstrong, "The Goodness of Good Friday. An unhappy celebration—isn't that an oxymoron?," Christian History newsletter, 2003-APR-18, at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/
  11. "Easter," Wikipedia, as on 2013-MAR-31, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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Copyright 1999 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-MAR-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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