Go out into the market on Easter and you cannot miss the Easter egg on the shop counter – filled with sweets and chocolates, it is irresistible. Several people also paint eggs or emboss chocolate eggs with sugar flowers to gift to friends and relatives.
But what is Easter? Easter Sunday falls on the Sunday after Good Friday and on this day Easter eggs are available in the market – that is what most of us know. In reality, the preparation for Easter starts with a fast 40 days earlier, on Ash Wednesday.
Also, did you know that Easter is associated with Passover, which is a Jewish festival? Or that because there is no fixed date for Passover, even the date for Easter is not fixed? Well, the fact is that Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25.
But before going into these details, let’s see what Easter is all about.
Easter comes from the word ‘eastre’ or ‘ostara’. The preparation for Easter begins with Ash Wednesday, which is so called because the priest marks the foreheads of people with ash, in the form of a cross. Ash Wednesday always falls on the seventh Wednesday before Easter.
Ash Wednesday also marks the beginning of Lent, the season of fasting for Christians across the world. Starting Ash Wednesday, Christians fast for 40 days in preparation for Easter. This is because Jesus had fasted for 40 days before he started his public life as a preacher.
Most Christians avoid eating meat and taking liquor during this period. Traditionally, these fast days are supposed to be spent in fasting, repentance and prayer.
This period of fasting ends on Good Friday, the day when Jesus Christ was crucified. Before dying, he told his disciples that he would rise again two days later. And he did. That is why Easter, which always falls on a Sunday, is celebrated as a victory of life over death. It is a day of joy and happiness and is celebrated with great fervour.
Interestingly, although Christmas, or the day of Christ’s birth is fixed for December 25, Easter does not have a fixed date. The Christian festival of Easter is associated with the Jewish festival of Passover because Christ’s arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection happened during this eight-day Jewish festival. Or at least, that’s what happened according to a Reader’s Digest publication, Why in the World.
During Passover, the Jews thank God for saving them from slavery in Egypt. The Jewish slaves escaped from their masters and were led to the Promised Land by Moses.
Since the Jews base their calendar on the rotation of the moon, and not the sun, the date for Passover keeps changing. Hence, Easter too is not on a fixed date. It is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21.
For centuries the Church has debated over why Easter cannot be on a fixed date. Several people also want to disassociate Easter from Passover. But how does one do that? Different churches have not agreed to any one proposal, yet.
The Church may debate over Easter and when it should fall, but in actual fact, Easter has its roots in an even older festival. The period before Christianity was born is called the ‘pagan’ era by the Christians. Pagan means the belief in many Gods.
Before Easter became a Christian festival, the pagans celebrated Eastre or Ostara. Ostara is the name of the goddess of spring among the Germanic tribes of northern Europe. The pagans celebrated Eastre to welcome spring after a hard winter. A time when everything was new – new leaves sprung up on the trees and the birds were mating.
In fact, the Easter egg also originates from that era. The ancient Egyptians and Romans gifted eggs to each other because they symbolised a new life. Sometimes, colours, which depicted certain flowers, were painted on the eggs. The early Christians carried on this tradition and gradually, the eggs came to symbolise Easter – while their original meaning was forgotten.