EASTER. Easter, the Christian festival commemorating the resurrection of Christ, was the earliest feast day decided upon by the ancient Christian Church. Like its Jewish predecessor Passover, it is a movable feast, based on the lunar calendar rather than falling on the same Sunday every year.
The complicated dating for Easter was set in 325 at the Council of Nicaea, which scheduled the festival to be celebrated on the first Sunday following the full moon occurring next after the vernal equinox (about March 21); however, if the full moon occurs on a Sunday, Easter will be celebrated the following Sunday. Hence, the date of Easter can fluctuate between March 22 and April 25. Because the Western churches (Catholic and Protestant) now follow the Gregorian calendar, the Eastern churches, which follow the unrevised Julian calendar, celebrate Easter (and other Church holidays) on different dates. In the Orthodox Churches, Easter marks the beginning of the ecclesiastical year.
Like many other Christian feasts, the celebration of Easter contains a number of originally pagan or folk-religious elements tolerated by the Church. Among these are customs associated with the Easter egg, Easter breads and other special holiday foods, and the European concept of the Easter hare, or, in America, of the Easter rabbit, which brings baskets of candies and colored eggs during the night.
The pagan roots of Easter involve the spring festivals of pre-Christian Europe and the Near East, which celebrate the rebirth of vegetation, welcoming the growing light as the sun becomes more powerful in its course toward summer. It is significant that in England and Germany the Church accepted the name of the pagan goddess "Easter" (Anglo-Saxon Eostra —her name has several spellings) for this new Christian holiday. In Mediterranean Europe (Italy, Spain, and France), Christianity adopted pascha, a word derivative of Passover, from which comes the adjective "paschal" for things pertaining to Easter, such as the Paschal Lamb.
Aside from the fact that Easter Sunday officially ended the long fast of Lent, one of the most distinctive food elements of the Easter celebration is the Easter egg. In earlier times, Easter eggs were much more a part of the formal culture than they are in America today, where individual families determine the range of the custom. In the European village context, Easter eggs were once used as part of one's tithe to the landlord, or given as festive (and expected) gifts to the village pastor, the schoolmaster, the sexton and bell-ringer, the parish gravedigger, and even the village shepherd. Of course, they were hospitably presented to visitors, bestowed as favors upon servants, and, above all, given to children. Courting couples exchanged them as tokens of love, and godparents usually regaled their godchildren with gifts of decorated eggs.
The Easter rabbit (Easter hare in Europe) is not documented before the seventeenth century. While the Easter hare is the major egg supplier in European Easter celebration, there were other runners-up in the form of egg birds, Easter hens, cranes, storks, even foxes and other creatures. With its late origin, scholars are still debating the reasons for the association of the rabbit with Easter custom and lore. It is generally thought that, like the Christmas tree—and the recent development of Easter egg trees—the custom first emerged in the cities, then filtered down into the country villages. Among the theories of the origin of the Easter rabbit belief, the most plausible (although still not without difficulties) is that it may be connected in some way with the so-called March Hare of folktale. The Easter rabbit was believed to actually lay the eggs; hence, children went to elaborate lengths to build attractive "nests" for the elusive egg layer, who was summoned by whistling or by saying a charm.
The elaborate decoration of Easter eggs became a major form of home-produced folk art both in Europe and America. Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, who produced an elaborate Easter culture, eggs are dyed with onion skins, producing a rich reddish-brown color, or with other natural dyes. These eggs are then scratch-carved with designs, dates, names, or even religious verses, or elaborately decorated by winding the pith of a reed around the egg to create patterns. The Pennsylvania Dutch also make Easter birds out of large goose or duck eggs, furnishing them with wings, beaks, and tails. These are hung from the ceilings of farmhouse kitchens as festive seasonal decoration.
In areas of Canada and the United States where Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians as well as Poles and other Eastern Europeans settled, unusual methods of egg decoration are found. Such Easter eggs are generally referred to as pysanka (plural pysanky ). In Eastern Europe, egg decoration is an ancient folk craft treasured in families and passed down from generation to generation. In Czarist Russia, this craft was elevated to such a degree that it was even imitated by such famous jewelers as Fabergé. Whether created with gold leaf and sapphires or just homemade dyes, the designs involve a variety of standard motifs—geometrical, animal, and floral. The geometrical motifs are probably the oldest, and range from simple horizontal and vertical lines to sectionalize the egg to sun symbols like the tripod, or to the "endless line" forms. Some of the most complex patterns incorporate stars and rosettes. Animal and bird designs are the rarest; the reindeer is said to symbolize wealth and prosperity, while the hen, or the feet of a hen, symbolizes fertility and fulfillment of wishes. Butterflies, fish, and horses are also occasionally included in the design repertoire. From the plant world, pine trees are drawn to symbolize eternal youth and health. Many of the Slavic methods of decoration are similar to those used by the Pennsylvania Dutch, but the range of motifs is different, the colors more striking, and the designs richly elaborate. Background colors are often red or black, although green and yellow are also popular, but multicolored designs seem to be the most popular.
In the family and community of all the various Christian denominations, Easter Sunday has always been a day of joyous celebration. In the Middle Ages it was often chosen as the day to crown kings since Easter feasting was, and remains, quite elaborate, especially in the Orthodox tradition. Since the day marked the official end to forty days of the Lenten fast, many special foods were prepared to mark the occasion. Easter breads have been researched widely and form a huge genre of ornamental foods made especially for this feast. Among the Greeks, lung soup is very much associated with Easter cookery, while in America baked ham seems to be one of the most common features of the Easter dinner. Many games were played with Easter eggs prior to or following Easter dinner, such as egg picking, where the player forfeits his or her egg if it cracks during the picking, egg eating contests, and egg rolling contests. In Europe and in parts of colonial America, Easter was often extended into a twoday celebration, with feasting, gaming, and other secular entertainments continued into Easter Monday.
Easter has undergone further evolution in more modern times, especially since the latter half of the nineteenth century. The confectionery trade began to commercialize Easter during the 1870s, with the introduction of an entirely new line of sweets employing Easter themes. Chocolatiers in particular discovered that candies once only sold as luxury foods for Christmas could become just as lucrative when transformed into rabbits and similar gift items. Today Easter is one of the most important seasons for selling confectionery, from chocolate bunnies, marshmallow chicks, and jelly beans, to music box coconut eggs, spun sugar tulips, and edible crucifixes filled with brandied fruit.
The most concise reporting of Easter customs in Europe occurred at a symposium on Easter organized by Robert Wildhaber of Switzerland. Wildhaber edited the papers and published them in 1957 in the Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde. The papers cover Eastertide as celebrated in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France (especially Alsace), Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Greece. The majority of the contributions deal with Easter eggs, their history, function, decoration, role in folk medicine, and in riddles. Several contributions treat Easter foods, especially Easter breads and other baked goods. Venetia Newall's An Egg at Easter (1971) is the most expert introduction in English to the history of the Easter egg and its place in ecclesiastical and folk culture.
Bradshaw, Paul F., and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Passover and Easter: Origin and History in Modern Times. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.
Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2002.
Newall, Venetia. An Egg at Easter: A Folklore Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.
Rodrigue, Denise. Cycle de Pâques au Québec et dans l'Ouest de la France. Québec: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 1983.
Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Shoemaker, Alfred L. Eastertide in Pennsylvania: A Folk-Cultural Study. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 2000.
Watts, Alan W. Easter: Its Story and Meaning. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1959.
Wildhaber, Robert, ed. "Osterbrauchtum in Europa." Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde 53, nos. 2, 3 (1957): 61–204.
Although Easter represents the central celebration of the Christian faith, the United States lacks deep-rooted Easter traditions, despite Christianity's imprint. Appropriately, in a country that has led the world in commerce, the marketplace shaped Easter into a national holiday using a combination of Old World religious and folk symbols. Yet while the marketplace helped secularize the holiday, it also spread Easter's religious observance and provided Americans with new opportunities for social expression and interaction.
In antebellum America, Puritans and later evangelicals such as Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists suppressed Easter and other traditional festivals. For them, the Bible's failure to mention either Easter or Christmas celebrations suggested the pagan origins of both. More important, these Sabbatarians viewed the Easter season's lengthy liturgical calendar as a threat to systematic industry and piety. Nevertheless, parochial celebrations of Easter persisted among minority denominations such as Lutherans, Moravians, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics. Not until decades after the Civil War did a nationally recognized holiday emerge from a bricolage of merchandizing, Protestant genteel culture, and localized folk customs.
Resistance to celebrating Easter gradually eroded as the expanding American marketplace catered to the genteel quest for romantic escape. Victorians dusted off and tamed traditional holidays as family-centered festivities. Even in the early development of Easter as an American holiday, the marketplace, churches, and consumers interacted to create a celebration. Ironically, churches promoted Easter's secularization and commercialization by adopting marketing techniques to boost attendance, retain membership, or meet the need for Easter celebration stimulated by the market. Churches with few liturgical Easter traditions added floral decorations in high church style, and distributed flowers, cards, candy, or novelties to parishioners and Sunday-school children.
The Easter parade provides an example of market-church symbiosis that grew into an American Easter trademark. The parade emerged in mid-nineteenth-century New York with a throng of churchgoers strolling along Fifth Avenue to view floral decorations in houses of worship. By late in the century, after merchants combined promotion of spring styles with Easter, the procession evolved into a fashion parade with spectators arriving from out of town. New York's annual event became a model for similar parades in Boston, Philadelphia, and smaller towns and cities. While for many years it served as a middle- and upper-class pageant for social display, the creation of mass markets democratized the parade by the mid-twentieth century. As portrayed by Irving Berlin's 1948 film Easter Parade, which depicted an Easter buying spree with a backdrop featuring a cathedral, aspiring working-class women also paraded by that time.
If churches could help promote commercialization of the holiday, commerce could spread the holiday's religious as well as secular observance. By the 1880s, store window dressers employed Christian symbols such as floral crosses or religious banners to sell Easter-related goods, and some department stores created cathedral-like shopping concourses with Christian iconography. Yet often merchants combined religious images with customs that originated elsewhere and sometimes took on a sacred aura (even the Easter lily was introduced in the 1880s from Bermuda by an enterprising florist). Within a few decades around the turn of the twentieth century, American merchandizing had transformed locally employed folk symbols of spring—including colored eggs, bunnies, chicks, and lambs—into standard emblems of American Easter by using their images for advertising, candies, cakes, toys, and knickknacks. Early German immigrants, for example, brought the tradition of coloring, hiding, and exchanging eggs as well as the legend of the eggproducing Easter bunny. Commercial promotion of egg dyes and egg-shaped candies spread the custom of children's Easter "nests," egg hunts, and later, baskets in America. Early in the twentieth century, the Easter bunny rivaled the egg as an Easter symbol through its ubiquitous appearance as a confection, toy, and as a seasonal counterpart to Santa later when toy departments featured a costumed "Easter bunny." Similarly, the White House egg roll, also based on Germanic custom, became like the Easter parade an annual event on America's festive calendar when publicized in the nationalizing culture after its inaugural in 1878.
Since more than a century ago, critics have charged that commerce not only revived pagan spring symbols at the expense of the religious, but also revived the pagan festival itself by transforming a Christian commemoration of self-sacrifice and suffering into an orgy of self-indulgence. But at the same time, merchandizing created new social opportunities by expanding the popularity of the holiday. For instance, although relegated to managing the home when Easter emerged, women shaped the holiday as consumers. Unempowering though the Easter parade may have been, it enabled women to momentarily break through gender strictures and move from the periphery to the center of public life. By buying and exchanging Easter cards and goods, they shifted the celebration from church to family and friends. Activities such as coloring and hiding eggs, or filling baskets with candy and gifts, transformed Easter into a family-centered holiday. Easter offered parents harried in the modern world another opportunity to bond with children.
In the early twenty-first century, the Easter celebration reflected contemporary America's atomization and corresponding segmented markets instead of class-based or mass markets of the past. Class might have been gone, but so was the blurring between the religious and secular in national life. Religious themes disappeared from Easter in public culture, due not only to secularization but also to the decline of large denominations and the rise of independent evangelical churches. In national marketing, Easter dissolved into a spring festival where folk symbols abounded in Easter candy (such as ubiquitous yellow marshmallow "peeps"), the Easter bunny at malls, and fashions designated as "spring" rather than "Easter."
Ironically, Easter flourished at the local level as it did before the market nationalized the holiday. Many festivities suggested the segmented marketing trend toward individual self-fulfillment as well as consumer self-indulgence. New York's Easter Parade, for example, devolved into a spring frolic of costumed revelers; donating blood at Easter, a practice loaded with both Christian and pagan symbolism, became an Easter tradition for some Americans; and decorating lawns and trees with plastic eggs, an ersatz revival of a German folk custom, grew in popularity.
Among churches, community organizations, and families, customary activities such as passion plays, sunrise observances, egg hunts, and egg collecting mixed indiscriminately with commerce as they did in premodern times. Christian retailing, with outlets commonly found in local churches as well as malls, counted Easter as a "spike" in annual sales ranking in the billions. And in the 1970s, some churches began using malls for Easter sunrise services. While religiously minded critics might decry the venue, it simply represents the historical truth of Easter celebrating in America: the union of the marketplace and the resurrection, both sources of renewal, possibilities, and regeneration.
Aikman, Lonnelle. The Living White House. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 1987.
Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1971.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. "The Commercialization of the Calendar: American Holidays and the Culture of Consumption, 1870–1930." Journal of American History 78, no. 3 (December 1991): 887–916.
——. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: The Year of the Lord in Liturgy and Folklore. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.
EASTER , the most important of all Christian feasts, celebrates the passion, the death, and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The English name Easter, like the German Ostern, probably derives from Eostur, the Norse word for the spring season, and not from Eostre, the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess. In Romance languages the name for Easter is taken from the Greek Pascha, which in turn is derived from the Hebrew Pesaḥ (Passover). Thus Easter is the Christian equivalent of the Jewish Passover, a spring feast of both harvest and deliverance from bondage. The Eastern Slavs call Easter "the great day" and greet one another, as do the Greeks, with the words "Christ is risen," receiving the response "He is risen indeed."
Easter is the earliest of all annual Christian feasts. It may originally have been observed in conjunction with the Jewish Passover on the fourteenth day of the month Nisan. Gradually, however, it was observed everywhere on Sunday, the day of Christ's resurrection. The Council of Nicaea (325) prescribed that Easter should always be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox.
Easter was fundamentally a nocturnal feast preceded by a fast of at least one day. The celebration took place from Saturday evening until the early morning hours of Sunday. In the fifth century Augustine of Hippo called this "the mother of all vigils." From at least the time of Tertullian (third century) the Easter Vigil (also called the Paschal Vigil) was the favored time for baptism, since the candidates for initiation mirrored the new life won by Christ from the darkness of death.
The symbolism of light became an important feature of this nocturnal festival. It was customary on the Saturday evening of the Easter Vigil to illuminate not only churches but entire towns and villages with lamps and torches; thus the night was called "the night of illumination." From at least the end of the fourth century in Jerusalem the lighting of lamps at vespers took on a special character at this feast. In Northern European countries the use of special lights at Easter coincided with the custom of lighting bonfires on hilltops to celebrate the coming of spring; this is the origin of the Easter fire later kindled in Western Christian Easter Vigils. Large Easter candles also became the rule, and poems were composed in honor of them and thus of Christ the light, whom they symbolized. Such poems stem from as early as the fourth century; the most famous, still employed in various versions, is the Exultet, which originated in the seventh or eighth century. In the East, among the Orthodox, Holy Saturday night is celebrated with a candlelight procession outside the church building. After a solemn entrance into the church, bells peal and the Great Matins or Morning Prayer of Easter begins. It is followed by a solemn celebration of the Eucharist according to the liturgy of Saint Basil.
The Easter Vigil also contains a number of biblical readings. In the East the baptisms took place during the long readings of the vigil, whereas in the West a procession to the baptistery took place after the readings had been completed. In both cases the celebration of the Eucharist followed the baptisms. With the decline in adult conversions and, hence, in Easter baptisms during the Middle Ages, the time for the vigil service (and thus the end to fasting) was moved up to Saturday morning; however, the Roman Catholic church restored the nocturnal character of the service in 1952 and other rites relating to Holy Week in 1956. In the current Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopalian rites the Paschal Vigil is the high point of a triduum, or three days of services, celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ.
From at least the end of the fourth century, Easter was provided in Jerusalem with an octave, eight days of celebration. With the medieval decline in the octave celebration, Monday and Tuesday of Easter week nevertheless retained the character of holidays. In a larger context the whole of the fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost was properly called Easter, and so constituted a feast in its own right; the eight-day octave, however, was a time of special recognition of the newly baptized. The Sunday after Easter was called the "Sunday in white" because the newly baptized wore their baptismal garments for the last time on that day, and among the Orthodox the octave of Easter is still called "the week of new garments."
Devotions tied to the liturgy of Easter are the origins of liturgical drama. In the Middle Ages it was customary to bury the consecrated host and a cross, or simply a cross, in an Easter sepulcher on Holy Thursday or Good Friday. The host or cross was retrieved on Easter Sunday morning and brought to the altar in procession. From this practice developed a brief Easter play called the Visitatio sepulchri (Visit to the Tomb), which enacted the visit of the two women to Christ's empty tomb. The same dramatic dialogue can be seen in the eleventh-century poetic sequence Victimae paschali laudes (Praise to the Paschal Victim), which became part of the Western liturgy.
A number of popular customs mark Easter Sunday and the rest of Easter week. One such custom, allied to the coming of spring with its earlier sunrise, is an outdoor sunrise service celebrating the resurrection. Such celebrations are especially popular among American Protestants. Since Easter was a time in which the newly baptized wore shining white garments, it became customary to wear new clothes on Easter Sunday and to show them off by walking around town and countryside; thus originated the Easter promenade or Easter parade, popular in many places.
Among the most familiar Easter symbols are the egg and rabbit. The egg symbolizes new life breaking through the apparent death (hardness) of the eggshell. Probably a pre-Christian symbol, it was adapted by Christians to denote Christ's coming forth from the tomb. In many countries the exchange of colored or decorated eggs at Easter has become customary. The Easter Bunny or Rabbit is also most likely of pre-Christian origin. The rabbit was known as an extraordinarily fertile creature, and hence it symbolized the coming of spring. Although adopted in a number of Christian cultures, the Easter Bunny has never received any specific Christian interpretation.
Among Easter foods the most significant is the Easter lamb, which is in many places the main dish of the Easter Sunday meal. Corresponding to the Passover lamb and to Christ, the Lamb of God, this dish has become a central symbol of Easter. Also popular among Europeans and Americans on Easter is ham, because the pig was considered a symbol of luck in pre-Christian European culture.
For a comprehensive survey of the Western liturgical development of Easter, see Ildephonso Schuster's The Sacramentary (New York, 1925). Good treatments of Easter and associated popular customs can be found in Francis X. Weiser's Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York, 1958) and in the same author's The Easter Book (New York, 1954). For discussion from the point of view of the history of religions, see E. O. James's Seasonal Feasts and Festivals (New York, 1961).
John F. Baldovin (1987)
The name is recorded from Old English (in form ēastre) and is of Germanic origin, related to east. According to Bede the word is derived from Ēastre, the name of a goddess associated with spring.
Easter bunny an imaginary rabbit said to bring gifts of Easter eggs to children at Easter, deriving (in popular folklore) from the association of the rabbit with fertility.
Easter egg an artificial chocolate egg or decorated hard-boiled egg given at Easter, especially to children.
Easter Rising the uprising in Dublin and other cities in Ireland against British rule, Easter 1916. It ended with the surrender of the protesters, and the execution of their leaders.
Easter Sepulchre a recess in certain medieval churches for keeping the Eucharistic elements from Good Friday until the Easter festivities.
Easter term a term in the courts of law, formerly movable and occurring between Easter and Whitsuntide, but now fixed within a certain period; in the older universities, a term formerly occurring between Easter and Whitsuntide and now included in the Trinity term; in some universities and schools, the term between Christmas and Easter.
Revd Dr William M. Marshall
- basket filled with treats, representative of feast on Easter Sunday. [Folklore: Misc.]
- bonnet usually worn along with new clothes on Easter Sunday. (“Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet.”) [Christian Tradition: Misc.; Am. Music: Irving Berlin, “Easter Parade”]
- bunny delivers chocolates, etc., to children. [Western Folklore: Jobes, 487]
- daisy a flower traditionally displayed in homes during Easter season. [Christian Tradition: Jobes, 487]
- egg colored eggs as symbol of new life, adopted to reflect Resurrection. [Christian Tradition: Brewer Dictionary, 361]
- jelly beans traditional treat for children on Easter Sunday; symbolize eggs. [Pop. Culture: Misc.]
- parade of finery; most notable ones in New York and Atlantic City on Easter Sunday. [Pop. Culture: Misc.]
- purple and yellow traditional colors seen in churches during Easter season. [Christian Color Symbolism: Jobes, 487]
- spring flowers a token of Christ’s resurrection. [Christian Tradition: Jobes, 487]
- white lily symbol of Resurrection. [Christian Tradition: Jobes, 487]
- white and green signifies color of Easter holidays. [Christian Color Symbolism: Jobes, 487]
The primitive Christian feast known in the 2nd–3rd cents. as the Pasch (Aramaic, pasḥa, ‘Passover’) formed the Christian counterpart to the Jewish festival.
Since the Council of Nicaea (325) Easter has been fixed for the Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox. However, there is still a divergence between E. and W. Churches, mainly because almost all Orthodox Churches, even those who otherwise use the Gregorian calendar, use the Julian date for the equinox. Thus the date of ‘Orthodox Easter’ sometimes coincides with the W. date, but it is usually one, four, or five weeks later.
Eas·ter / ˈēstər/ • n. the most important and oldest festival of the Christian Church, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ and held (in the Western Church) between March 21 and April 25, on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern spring equinox. ∎ the period in which this occurs, esp. the weekend from Good Friday to Easter Monday.