The history of the Easter celebration dates back to the date of Christ’s death during the time of the Roman Empire. Easter, the primary festival of the Christian church year, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion.
The origins of Easter celebration date back to the beginnings of Christianity, and it is probably the oldest Christian observance after the Sabbath (observed on Saturday). Later, the Sabbath subsequently came to be regarded as the weekly celebration of the resurrection. Meanwhile, many of the cultural historians find in the celebration of Easter a convergence of the three traditions – pagan, Hebrew and Christian.
According to St. Bede, an English historian of the early 8th century, our Easter celebration owes its origin to the old Teutonic mythology. It was derived from the name Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month of April was dedicated. The festival of Eostre was celebrated at the vernal equinox, when both day and night last twelve hours. The ancient Saxons celebrated the return of spring with an uproarious festival commemorating their goddess Eostre. When the second-century Christian missionaries encountered the tribes of the north with their pagan celebrations, they do what Christian missionaries have always done–they attempted to convert them to Christianity. They did so, however, in a roundabouut manner.
It would have been dangerous for the very early Christian converts to celebrate their holy days with observances that did not coincide with celebrations that already existed. To save lives, the missionaries decided to spread their dogma slowly throughout the populations by allowing them to continue to celebrate pagan feasts, but to do so in a Christian manner.
As it happened, the pagan festival of Eastre occurred at the same time of year as the Christian observance of the resurrection of Christ. It made sense, therefore, to alter the festival itself, to make it a Christian observance as pagans were slowly indoctrinated. The early name, Eastre, was eventually changed to its modern spelling, Easter.
The Easter festival, as celebrated today, is also related to the Hebrew tradition, the Jewish Passover. The Jewish Passover under Moses commemorates Israel’s deliverance from about 300 years of bondage in Egypt. It was during this Passover in 30 CE Christ was crucified under the order of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate as the then Jewish high priests accused Jesus of “blasphemy.”
The resurrection came three days later, on Easter Sunday. The early Christians, many of them being brought up in Jewish tradition, regarded Easter as a new feature of the Pascha (Passover). It was observed in memory of the advent of the Messiah, as foretold by the prophets. Throughout Christendom, the Sunday of Pascha had become a holiday to honor Christ.
At the same time many of the pagan spring rites came to be a part of its celebration.The Feast of Easter was well-established by the second century. But there had been dispute over the exact date of the Easter observance between the Eastern and Western Churches. The East wanted to have it on a weekday because early Christians observed Passover every year on the 14th of Nisan, the month based on the lunar calendar. But, the West wanted that Easter should always be a Sunday regardless of the date.
To solve this problem the emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325. The question of the date of Easter was one of its main concerns. The council decided that Easter should fall on Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. But fixing up the date of the equinox was still a problem. The Alexandrians, noted for their rich knowledge in astronomical calculations were given the task. And March 21 was made out to be the perfect date for spring equinox. Accordingly, churches in the West observe it on the first day of the full moon that occurs on or following the spring equinox on March 21, it became a movable feast between March 21 and April 25.
Beyond the religious observances of Holy Week and Easter Sunday, there are other observances associated with the Easter celebrations. Lent is the forty-six day preparatory period just prior to Easter Sunday. It begins on Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”) is a celebration, sometimes called “Carnival,” practiced around the world, on the Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday. A wild and raucous celebration of rich food, wild dancing, elaborate parades, and costume parties, Mardi Gras was designed as a way to “get it all out” before the sacrifices of Lent began. Lent was a somber period of fasting and prayer to prepare the penitent to acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice of their Lord.
The Easter Bunny is not a modern invention. The symbol originated with the pagan festival of the goddess Eastre, who was worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons through her earthly symbol, the rabbit. The Germans brought the symbol of the Easter rabbit to America. It was widely ignored by other Christians until shortly after the Civil War. In fact, Easter itself was not widely celebrated in America until after that time.
As with the Easter Bunny and the holiday itself, the Easter egg predates the Christian holiday of Easter. The exchange of eggs in the springtime is a custom that was centuries old when Easter was first celebrated by Christians. From the earliest times, the egg was a symbol of birth in most cultures. For the rich, eggs were often wrapped in gold leaf or for the peasants, colored brightly by boiling them with the leaves or petals of certain flowers. Today, children hunt colored eggs and place them in Easter baskets along with the modern version of real Easter eggs — those made of plastic or chocolate candy.
Easter egg rolls and hunts, where children search for eggs, have been popular since the early 1900’s, and the United States White House has the scene of such an event for over 100 years.