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Easter and its meanings

Easter is celebrated, in Christian countries at least, as a religious holiday of rejoicing in the Resurrection.

But this Spring festival is as well an ancient tradition whose origin lies in pagan customs and legend. The meaning of the word ‘Easter’ itself was said by the Venerable Bede (an eighth century English scholar and philosopher) to originate in a Scandinavian word, ostra, joined by two Teutonic words, ostern or eastre. These last were Germanic goddesses, according to myth; divine beings representing fertility and spring water bubbling from the earth (as seen in the early Ingmar Bergman film The Virgin Spring). The Spring Festival was celebrated as early as the eighth century on the days of vernal equinox.

It is difficult to believe, but nevertheless true, that many of our modern traditions connected with Easter are exceedingly antique: Easter bunny rabbits, for instance (symbols of fertility), and those coloured Easter eggs (painted by hand in my youth). They were gifts, too, in the old times, something you gave with love and hope to those dearest to you. In Norfolk the ordinary people still hold ‘egg-rolling’ contests at Easter, though few people know why.

The Jewish festival of Passover or Pesach (Pasch in some European languages) was one of the contributing factors too. Passover is a most im-portant feast in the Jewish calendar, celebrated during a period of eight days. It remembers the flight from slavery in Egypt inspired and led by Moses.

Easter is observed by western Christian churches from the first Sunday after the full moon seen in or around the spring equinox (usually March 21st or thereabouts). It is the first example we have of what is called ‘a moveable feast’, that is one which might occur on one day or another, in March, or even in April. As always, everything depends on the Moon, which has, after all, been around longer than any of us.

Christian churches in the East, however, stick closer to the rule of observing the festival during Passover.

Our Easter begins at the end of Lent, covering a 46-day period beginning on Ash Wednesday. Lent is the time when many Christians took on the nature of a fast, or hardly eating anything but the barest essentials to stay alive. The ancient English word breakfast means just that, a breaking of your fast, or the first meal taken after a long night. Lent is supposed to be a period used for reflection and penitence. In the present world of diminishing religions, few people eat only bread and fishes during Lent, and  thoroughly pagan festivals like the Carnivals in Rio and the Canaries have always cooked a derisive snook at the pious.

The last seven days in Lent are known as Holy Week in the Christian church. Palm Sunday celebrates the entry into Jerusalem of Christ on a humble donkey. The Bible tells us that on this day the people of the city laid palm fronds in the animal’s path. Therefore the tradition of giving these fronds out in church on Palm Sunday is at least two thousand years old.

Holy Thursday remembers the Last Supper, beautifully and respectfully painted by Michelangelo, and abused and mangled by a best-selling author. Good or Holy Friday is of course the anniversary of the day on which Christ was crucified. Finally, we come full circle, with the celebration of Easter Sunday, when Christians believe Jesus rose again from the dead and showed himself to his mother and the disciples.
Facts & figures about holiday of Easter

Did you know that religion historians believe that the holiday of Easter originated with the pagan festival of Eastre, a Saxon celebration of spring and fertility? The April holiday included a number of the same springtime rituals and symbols that today feature in Christianity’s celebration of Easter. Included among these are the rabbit and the egg, both ancient Pagan symbols of fertility.

That thousands of Christian pilgrims converge on Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Holy Week of Easter? On Palm Sunday, pilgrims march through the Holy City, waving palm branches and retracing the steps of Jesus as he made his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. Then, five days later, pilgrims walk solemnly along the fourteen Stations of the Cross, reenacting Jesus’ procession toward his crucifixion.

That Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of painting ashes on the forehead as a sign of repentance? The movable holiday, which falls anytime between February 4 and March 10, is the first day of the Lenten Period. The ashes are saved from the burning of the previous year’s Palm Sunday palm branches.

That the Easter Week, Semana Santa is the most important celebration in Spain.  The festivities begin with the Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) and end with Lunes de Pascua (Easter Monday). It is a celebration of life itself and the whole country comes alive.

That in Spain each town has its own accent on its celebrations. They all differ but in common they all portray life, colour, culture, music and dance, all with a very religious meaning. Everywhere, processions make their way through the streets, carrying religious icons and symbols of their faith.

That in Russia, Easter eggs are dyed on Holy Thursday? The traditional method involves boiling the eggs in a mixture of onion peels and silk scraps. Russian Easter eggs are thoughts to possess magic powers, including bringing prosperity and warding off evil spirits.

That in Greece, children and adults alike play an egg cracking game called tsougrisma on Easter? Players attempt to crack their eggs against their friend’s egg; the last person with an un-cracked egg is considered the lucky one. The Greeks traditionally dye their eggs red, symbolizing the blood and passion of Christ.

That Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the full moon of the vernal equinox? In Western churches, this can occur any Sunday between March 22nd and April 25th. In Orthodox Churches, Easter falls a bit later — between the beginning of April and the beginning of May. The difference in dates is due to varying calculations of when the vernal equinox takes place.

The 2010 Easter Date applies to the western calendar (Catholic and Protestant Churches), and also to the The Eastern Orthodox church. This is an unusual event since the two branches of Christianity have different methods for calculating the correct date for Easter. There are only a few years each century when the Easter dates match like this so Easter 2010 is seen as extra special.
That the trumpet shape of the Easter Lily is considered symbolic of the heralding of Jesus on his triumphant entry into Jerusalem? Biblical scholars also tell us that lilies may have grown in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Judas betrayed Jesus.

That Palm Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday in many Orthodox churches? Palm Sunday celebrates the triumphant entry of Jesus in Jerusalem, commemorated in many churches by processionals of parishioners who hold palm leaves tied to crosses. The Orthodox church view this as a solemn day of reflection since it portents Jesus’ death just five days later. The term passion is used in Christian parlance to refer to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross.

That in many Catholic churches, Good Friday services begin at precisely 3 o’clock? This is the time that Jesus is believed to have died on the Cross. Good Friday is a solemn day of prayer, repentance and, in some churches, fasting in commemoration of Jesus’ death. Catholics, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and many Protestants celebrate Good Friday.

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