The History of Easter

Easter is the commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ 3 days after his Crucifixion.  It is the most important religious feast in the Christian year celebrated two days after Good Friday which is the  Friday preceding Easter Sunday and commemorates the Crucifixion of Jesus and his death at Calvary. 

According to the New Testament, Christ was crucified on the eve of Passover and arose from the dead shortly after.     The original Easter Festival commemorating the resurrection was held on the eve of Passover.   In time, serious differences arose among Christians over the date of the Easter festival.  Those of Jewish origin celebrated immediately following the Passover festival, which by their Babylonian lunar calendar, fell on the evening of the full moon, so each year Easter fell on a different day of the week.

Gentiles preferred to commemorate the Resurrection on the first day of the week; Sunday.  By their account, Easter occurred on the same day of the week, but from year to year fell on different dates.  An important historical result of reckoning the date was that the Christian churches in the East, which were closer to the birthplace of the new religion and where old traditions were strong, observed Easter according to the Passover festival.  The churches in the West, celebrated Easter on Sunday. 

The Council of Nicaea Rules on the Date of Easter

Roman emperor, Constantine I, called the Council of Nicaea in 325.  The council ruled unanimously that Easter should be celebrated throughout the Christian world on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox; and that if the full moon should occur on a Sunday and coincide with the Passover festival, Easter should be commemorated on the following Sunday.  Coincidence of the feasts of Easter and Passover were thus avoided. 

The Council of Nicaea also decided the calendar date would be calculated at Alexandria, which was then the principal astronomical center of the world.  This proved to be a huge problem because of a discrepancy, called the epact, between the solar year and the lunar year. 

Fixing the Date

Ways of fixing the date proved unsatisfactory and Easter was celebrated on different dates in different parts of the world.  In 387, 62 years after the Council of Nicaea ruling, the dates of Easter in France and Egypt were 35 days apart.   Around 465, 140 years after the Nicaea ruling, the church adopted a system of calculation proposed by the astronomer Victorinus who had been commissioned by Pope Hilarius to reform the calendar and fix the date.  Elements of his methods are still in use today, but the refusal of the British and Celtic Christian churches to adopt the proposed changes led to a bitter dispute between them and Rome in the 7th century. 

Reform of the Julian calendar in 1582 by Pop Gregory XIII, through adoption of the Gregorian calendar, eliminated much of the difficulty in fixing the date of Easter and arranging the ecclesiastical year.  Since the time the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Great Britain and Ireland in 1752, Easter has been celebrated on the same day in the Western part of the Christian world.  The Eastern churches which did not adopt the Gregorian calendar, commemorate Easter on a Sunday preceding or following the date observed in the West.  On occasion, the dates coincide, most recently in 1865 and 1963.

Like Christmas

Easter affects a variety of secular affairs in many countries, so it has been long urged that it be celebrated on a fixed date like Christmas or be narrowed in range.  The problem was referred to the Holy See which has found no canonical objection.  In 1928, the British Parliament enacted a measure allowing the Church of England to commemorate Easter on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April.  Despite all of the steps toward reform, Easter continues to be a movable commemoration.

Pagan Origins

Easter embodies many pre-Christian traditions.  The origin of the name is unknown, however, scholars believe it most likely comes from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, to whom a month was dedicated corresponding to April.   Her festival was celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox.   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. 

Festivals such as this and stories explaining their origins were common in ancient religions.  The Greek legend tells of the return of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth, from the underworld to the light of day; her return symbolized the resurrection of life in the spring after the desolation of winter for the Greeks.  The Phrygians believed their omnipotent deity went to sleep at the winter solstice and performed ceremonies with music and dancing to awaken him at the spring equinox. 

The Christian festival of Easter is likely a conversion of a number of traditions; but mostly tied to the Jewish festival of Passover.  Early Christians were brought up in the Hebrew tradition and regarded Easter as a new feature of the Passover festival commemorating the advent of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets.

The Symbols of Easter

Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility was often accompanied by a hare when represented.  The fertile nature of rabbits and hares is another symbol of life and the rebirth that occurs during the spring season. 

In addition, German settlers in America were said to have brought over the tradition of a bunny named “Oschter Haws” who would visit houses on Easter eve, leaving colored eggs for children.  Easter eggs were painted different colors to represent the sunlight of spring.  Christians later used eggs to symbolize the rebirth of Christ. 

Eating Hot Cross Buns is another tradition of Easter.  These cakes were marked by the Saxons to honor Eastre, the fertility goddess.  The crosses on the buns are said to represent the moon’s quarters, while Christians see the cross as a reference to the Crucifixion. 

References:

http://www.history.com/content/easter

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