A Fleeting History of Easter and its Traditions
We all know Easter is celebrated by Christians around the world as the period set aside to commemorate the death and then the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus. However, the history and traditions of Easter are a little more complex than first meets the eye.
The Naming of Easter
Paradoxically, the name Easter is derived from the name of an ancient pagan goddess. The deity Eastre was the Germanic goddess of Spring whose worship by tribe’s people pre-dated Christianity. Eastre’s symbol was the rabbit (or hare), which has given rise to its long association with Easter. Early missionaries sought to convert the pagan masses by adopting the celebration of the Eastre’s Festival.
The celebration just happened to fall around the same time as the Christian commemoration of Jesus’s resurrection, so missionaries kept its timing. They also retained the name but substituted the meaning. However, the practise of supplanting non-christian celebrations with Christain ones was not a new idea. Christain preachers often observed the method as a way to win over the maximum number of converts.
One small matter overlooked by early Christians was that the actual date of the Easter celebration was never firmly established. In early times some celebrated the festival at the time of the ancient Hebrew celebration of Passover. Others opted for the period around the spring equinox. In 325 AD, Emperor Constantine, a powerful advocate of Christianity, consulted with church leaders on the matter. Afterwards he decreed that Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the spring equinox.
This meant that Easter Sunday would always fall between March 22nd and April 25th in the Gregorian calendar. However, Eastern Orthodox Christianity adheres to the Julian calendar. They set Easter Sunday as the first after the Feast of the Passover. This meant that Easter would always fall between April 4th and May 8th.
Why Good Friday?
Part of the Easter festival is the oddly named Good Friday. The day always falls the Friday before Easter Sunday. Why is the day called ‘Good Friday’ when it’s the day that Jesus was crucified on the cross? There are several theories on the naming of the day. The main one is that ‘good’ actually meant ‘holy’ in old English, a notion supported by many ancient language experts. Another major belief is that because Jesus couldn’t have been resurrected without dying, the day of his death, is in a sense, ‘good’. And thus, without it, Easter would not exist. A third theory is that the ‘good’ in Good Friday was derived from ‘God’, so the day was originally called “God’s Friday”.
Easter Monday is always the day after Easter Sunday. It has no real religious significance but is recognised as the first day of Easter week. It’s a public holiday in the UK and some of those countries with strong ties to the Kingdom. However, across the UK, it’s a day that’s often celebrated by holding bizarre but fun events. These occasions include the likes of cheese rolling, Morris dancing, bed racing, welly wanging, etc. The custom of staging such frivolities around Easter time is said to date back to pagan times.
The Origin of the Easter Egg
Obviously, even the briefest of descriptions of the history of Easter wouldn’t be complete without mention of the Easter Egg. The act of giving and receiving eggs was a common tradition in pagan times. It is said the egg symbolises rebirth and renewal at the arrival of Spring. Thus, the tradition of dyeing and decorating ‘Easter eggs’ is an ancient custom. Its exact origin is unknown but it has been practiced by both the Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians since the early Middle Ages.
While painted eggs had been given as gifts for centuries, the tradition of chocolate Easter eggs didn’t emerge until the early 19th century. It was after cocoa was introduced to Europe that the first chocolate Easter eggs were made in France and Germany. However, the first mass-produced chocolate Easter eggs were produced in Britain by JS Fry & Sons in 1873. John Cadbury followed up with the production of their eggs in 1875. Today, the chocolate Easter egg market is a worldwide multi-billion dollar phenomenon. Sales in the UK can top 80 million pieces, alone. In 2019, the American market saw a staggering US$18 billion spent on chocolate over the Easter period.
Another long-standing Easter tradition is the hot cross bun. However, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how the custom came about. The sweet rolls, studded with raisins or currants, are marked with a cross. They are traditionally eaten in the week leading up to Easter Sunday. It’s thought the tradition started in the 12th-century when a monk decided to decorate his bread rolls to celebrate Good Friday.
There’s also the Easter game of egg tapping, egg jarping, egg knocking, or egg dumping, as it’s known in various parts of the UK. Traditionally played on Easter Sunday, two competitors tap the pointed ends of their eggs against each other to see which one cracks first. The ‘surviving egg’ then goes through to the next round to face a new opponent. Eventually, the ‘champion egg’ is crowned. The game is said to have originated in 14th-century Europe.
Dressing up and Eating
Today, the tradition of buying and wearing new clothes at Easter is not nearly as prevalent as it was. However, many British children of the 1960s will still remember dressing up in new outfits on Easter Sunday. It was commonly referred to as the ‘Easter parade’, because children, in particular, were ‘paraded’ around relatives so their new clobber could be admired. This tradition stems all the way back to the early church. Christians would be baptized and wear new white garments for some time after baptism to show their allegiance to their new way of life.
Another Easter tradition is the eating of lamb, which is reportedly what Jesus and the Apostles ate at the Last Supper. In America, ham is the more traditional meat eaten at Easter. Before refrigeration existed, pigs were always slaughtered in the fall (Autumn), meaning the cured meat was ready to eat at Easter.
So there you have it! That’s the reason we do the things we do at Easter!
Image header credit: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock.com
If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, why not check out more of the articles in the series by clicking the following link: Why do we…….?