Easter – A Brief History and Cultural Traditions Across the World

Filed in Gather News Channel by on April 4, 2010 0 Comments

A Brief History of Easter

Easter, the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, is Christianity’s most important holiday. Unlike most holidays, it doesn’t fall on a set date every year. Instead, Christian churches in the West celebrate Easter on the first Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox on March 21. Therefore, Easter is observed anywhere between March 22 and April 25 every year. Orthodox Christians use the Julian calendar to calculate when Easter arrives and typically celebrate the holiday a week or two after the Western churches, which follow the Gregorian calendar. This year Easter is by an unusual calendrical coincidence being celebrated on April 4 by both orthodox and non-orthodox Christians.

The exact origins of the word Easter are unknown. Some sources claim the word is derived from Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility. Other accounts trace Easter to the Latin term hebdomada alba, or white week, a reference to Easter week and the white clothing donned by people who were baptized during that time. Through a translation error, the term later appeared as esostarum in Old High German, which eventually became Easter in English. In Spanish, Easter is known as Pascua; in French, Paques. These words are derived from the Greek and Latin Pascha or Pasch, for Passover. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection occurred after he went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew), the Jewish festival commemorating the ancient Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Pascha eventually came to be associated with and then to literally mean Easter.

Easter is really an entire season of the Christian church year, and not just a one day holiday. Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday, is a time of reflection and penance and represents the 40 days that Jesus spent alone in the wilderness before starting his ministry. The day before Lent, known as Fat Tuesday, is a last hurrah of food and fun before the fasting begins. The week preceding Easter is called Holy Week and includes Maundy Thursday, which commemorates Jesus’ last supper with his disciples; Good Friday, which honors the day of his crucifixion; and Holy Saturday, which focuses on the transition between the crucifixion and resurrection. The 50-day period following Easter Sunday is called Eastertide.

Easter Traditions Across the World

Over the centuries many countries have developed different cultural traditions surrounding Easter. Here in the US, we of course, dye eggs and have a celebratory Easter Egg Hunt on Easter Sunday morning (with the eggs hidden by the Easter Bunny). This custom is practiced in most English-speaking countries.

There are also other Easter traditions associated with eggs – egg-knocking and egg-rolling are still commonly practiced traditions in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Louisiana.

In Finland, Sweden and Denmark, traditions include egg painting and small children dressed as witches collecting candy door-to-door, in exchange for decorated pussy willows. This is a result of the mixing of an old Orthodox tradition (blessing houses with willow branches) and the Scandinavian Easter witch tradition. Brightly colored feathers and little decorations are also attached to birch branches in a vase. For lunch/dinner on Holy Saturday, families traditionally feast on a smörgÃ¥sbord of herring, salmon, potatoes, eggs and other kinds of food. In Finland, the Lutheran majority enjoys mämmi as another traditional Easter treat, while the Orthodox minority’s traditions include eating pasha instead.

In the northern and eastern parts of the Netherlands, Easter Fires (in Dutch: “Paasvuur”) are lit on Easter Day at sunset. Easter Fires also take place on the same day in large portions of Northern Germany.

In Bermuda a whimsical and symbolically important part of the Easter celebration is the flying of kites to symbolize Christ’s ascent. Traditional Bermuda kites are constructed by Bermudians of all ages as Easter approaches, and are normally only flown at Easter. In addition to hot cross buns and Easter eggs, fish cakes are traditionally eaten in Bermuda at this time.


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