Image Gallery: U.S. Holidays
Image Gallery: U.S. Holidays

Rabbits are a powerful symbol of fertility and new life, and therefore, of Easter.

©iStockphoto.com/Sandra Brunsch

Introduction to How Easter Works

­Every year as Easter approaches, stores are filled with jelly beans, candy eggs, egg-coloring kits, bunnies of all types, and baskets for c­arrying all of this bounty. However, most of us know that Easter isn't simply a ­commercial festival about dyeing and hiding eggs or wearing new spring attire. Easter is the Christian observance of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his resurrection days later. It's the central festival of the Christian church and, after the Sabbath, it's the oldest Christian observance. ­

Unlike festivals such as Christmas, Easter has been celebrated without interruption since New Testament times. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

"...western Christians celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon (the paschal moon) that occurs on or next after the vernal equinox on March 21. If the paschal moon, which is calculated from a system of golden numbers and epacts and does not necessarily coincide with the astronomical full moon, occurs on a Sunday, Easter is the following Sunday."

­The U.S. Naval Observatory's Astronomical Applications Department says that Easter is determined by the "ecclesiastical moon" as defined by church-constructed tables to be used permanently for calculating the phase of the moon. This full moon isn't necessarily the same as the astronomical full m­oon. This means that Easter is not necessarily the Sunday after a full moon -- it could be the next Sunday after the ecclesiastical moon. This happened in 1876.

­Because of these calculations, Easter can fall between March 22 and April 25. This was decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 as part of the Gregorian calendar.

In New Testament times, the Christian church celebrated Easter when the Jews observed Passover. By the middle of the second century, Easter was celebrated on the Sunday after Passover. The Council of Nicaea decided in 325 A.D. that all churches should celebrate it together on a Sunday.

The Eastern Orthodox church may celebrate Easter up to a month later, since its calculation of the date is based on the Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. In 1865 and 1963, Easter observance in both Eastern and Western churches coincided.

In this article, we will explain the significance of the Easter holiday. We'll also explore the traditions behind it, including rolling -- and even throwing -- eggs. 

A child wears an ashen cross on her forehead at an interfaith Ash Wednesday service on February 9, 2005.

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The Season of Lent

Shrove Tuesday

If you l­ive outside the UK, you probably haven't heard of Shrove Tuesday. But you probably know it by its other name, Mardi Gras. Pancakes were originally eaten o­n Shrove Tuesday -- the Tuesday before Lent -- to use up eggs and fat before the fast of Lent. Today, these pancakes are generally made of eggs, milk and flour. The word "shrove" comes from "shrive," meaning "the confessions of sins" -- something done in preparation for Lent.

Ash Wedne­sday

­Ash Wed­nesday is a day of fasting that gets its name from the practice of sprinkling ashes over those engaging in the fast of Lent. Has anyone ever apologized to you by saying, "Let me put on my ashes and sackcloth..."? This is where that saying originated. Those wishing to receive the sacrament of penance were known as "penitents." They wore sackcloth and were required to remain apart from the Christian community until Maundy Thursday. This practice fell into disuse during the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries, when the beginning of Lent was symbolized by placin­g ashes on the heads of the entire congregation.

Today, some Christians have a cross put on their forehead in ashes. The ashes are usually made from the previous year's blessed palm fronds from Palm Sunday, and are usually wet with holy water before being used.

Lent

The name Lent comes from the Middle English lenten, meaning "spring." Lent signifies 40 days of fasting in order to imitate the fast of Jesus Christ after his baptism (the Epiphany). Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter Sunday, when it ends. (*Because they are celebratory days -- honoring the Resurrection, the six Sundays that occur during the period of Lent do not count as part of the 40-day observance.)

A procession at Saint Peter's Square for the Palm Sunday celebration, April 9, 2006 in Vatican City.

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Holy Week

P­alm Sunday

­Palm Sunday is the sixth and final Sunday of Lent. In many churches, it is the beginning ­of Holy Week, a week of observances leading up to Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday ­occurs one week before Easter and marks Jesus' entry into Jerusalem when his supporters waved palm fronds to celebrate his arrival. Today, many people use the ashes from palm fronds used on the previous year's Palm Sunday to mark a cross on the forehead of penitents on Ash Wednesday. Next, we'll look at the other days observed during Holy Week and the Easter holiday itself.

­­Maundy Thursday

The word "maundy" may have come from the maund (or mand) basket used by the fishermen in the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Centuries ago, there was a fair held on this day in Norwich (Norfolk), at which vendors sold horses, cattle and general merchandise. Some of the fisher-folk brought their maund baskets filled with items to sell, including fish. Clothing and hats were sold, as it was customary to buy a new item of clothing for Easter Sunday. This may well have been the origin of the Easter bonnet and the notion of wearing new spring attire for Easter.

Maundy Thursday may also have come from the Latin word mandatum, meaning "commandment," as in the Biblical words of Jesus:

"A new command I give you. Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." (John 13:34, NIV)

Many Maundy Thursday services begin with these words.

Anthony Rivilla from Los Angeles, CA, participates in the Passion Play in Jerusalem's Old City Friday April 21, 2000.

Brian Hendler/Newsmakers/­Getty Images

Good Friday

The Friday before Easter is called Good Friday, and is a somber observance of Christ's crucifixion on the cross. Christians believe that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross made it possible for them to know peace with God. They wanted to celebrate their peace rather than observe Friday as a day of mourning or sadness.

The name may also be derived from God's Day, since in the first two centuries, the word "good" would only ever have been used as a description for God. The Saxons and Danes called this day Long Friday, and Good Friday in Danish is Langfreday.

People take part in an Easter sunrise service at Lake Lawn Cemetery on April 16, 2006 in New Orleans, La.

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Easter Sunday

­Easter Sunday celebrates Jesus' resurrection. Along w­ith Christmas, Easter is considered one of the oldest and most joyous days on the Christian calendar. Religious services and other Easter celebrations vary throughout the regions of the world and even from country to country. In the United States, many "sunrise services" are held outside on Easter morning. These early services are symbolic of the empty tomb that was found early that Sunday morning and of Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem before sunrise on the Sunday of his resurrection:

"Do not be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him." (Mark 16:6, NIV)

It is important to understand that Easter was not celebrated or mentioned in the Bible. Rather, the three-day period from Good Friday through Easter Sunday has become a traditional observance of when Christians believe that the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ occurred.

Easter Traditions

­In addition to the religious celebrations and observances of Easter, many countries also celebrate Easter with sweets and baked goods. Eggs, a traditional symbol of new life, are hard-boiled and dyed. Chocolate candies of all shapes and sizes are bought. Cakes and breads are baked and carefully decorated. An­d in many homes, families celebrate Easter with a gathering of family for an elaborate Easter dinner. According to the book "Festivals and Celebrations," eggs were dyed in ancient times by the Egyptians and Persians, who then exchanged them with friends. "It was in Mesopotamia that Christians first gave eggs to their friends at Easter to remind them of the resurrection of Jesus," author Rowland Purton writes.

If Lent is­ observed as it was intended to be, eggs are a forbidden food (this is why eggs were used on Shrove Tuesday). Centuries ago, when Lent ended on Easter Sunday, it became tradition for people to give decorated eggs as presents to their friends and servants. Over time, the tradition of painting or decorating eggs has continued, particularly with the Ukrainians and other eastern Europeans known for their beautiful and intricate designs.

The bejeweled "Easter Egg" created by the artist Peter Carl Fabergé in the late 1880s in St. Petersburg, Russia, is the extreme of egg decorating. The lapis lazuli egg is a gold, enamel, pearl, diamond and ruby creation that features a hinged, enameled "yolk" that conceals a royal crown. This crown is also hinged and opens to reveal a ruby egg. Though this Easter egg is not documented among the Russian Imperial Eggs, experts say it was probably created for a member of Russian royalty. Visit The Cleveland Museum of Art: Special Exhibitions to view other intricate and bejeweled eggs created by Peter Carl Fabergé.

Rabbits

­Rabbits are a powerful symbol of fertility and new life, and therefore, of Easter. The Easter Bunny, like Santa Claus, has become a popular children's character. But it may be that the Easter Bunny is something of a historical mistake.

Hares were sacred to the pagan festival of Eostre. At some point, the hare was replaced by the rabbit (some say that this is because it is difficult to tell hares and rabbits, both long-eared mammals, apart).

Hot Cross Buns

­According to the book "Dates and Meanings of Religious & Other Festivals," hot cross buns "used to be kept specially for Good Friday with the symbolism of the cross, although it is thought that they originated in pagan times with the bun representing the moon and its four quarters."

The custom of eating hot cross buns goes back to pre-Christian times, when pagans offered their god, Zeus, a cake baked in the form of a bull, with a cross upon it to represent its horns. Throughout the centuries, hot cross buns were made and eaten every Good Friday, and it was thought that they had miraculous curative powers. People hung buns from their kitchen ceilings to protect their households from evil for the year to come. Good Friday bread and buns were said never to go moldy. This was probably because the buns were baked so hard that there was no moisture left in the mixture for the mold to live on. Hot cross buns and bread baked on Good Friday were used in powdered form to treat all sorts of illnesses.

New York City's Annual Easter Parade, 1998

Jeff Christensen/Getty Images

Worldwide Easter Celebrations

­Religio­us services and other Easter celebrations vary throughout the regions of the world and even from country to country. In the United States, many "sunrise services" are held outside, often in gardens or beside lakes where baptisms (representing rebirth) can be held on Easter morning. Here are a few other ways in which Easter is celebrated:

  • Bulgaria - In Bulgaria, people don't hide their eggs -- they have egg fights! Whoever comes out of the game with an unbroken egg is the winner and assumed to be the most successful member of the family in the coming year. In another tradition, the oldest woman in the family rubs the faces of the children with the first red egg she has colored, symbolizing her wish that they have rosy cheeks, health and strength (much like the Easter egg).
  • Mexico - Easter and related holidays are colorful and lively in Mexico, where children actually smash eggs over each other's heads in the week before Lent begins! Fortunately, these eggs are filled with small pieces of paper rather than raw egg.
  • Germany - In Germany, eggs are dyed green on Maundy Thursday.
  • Greece - On Easter Sunday in Greece, there is a public procession. Red eggs (red for the blood of Christ) are tapped together while one person declares "Christ is risen" and the other replies "Truly He is risen."
  • United States - Parades are traditional in some U.S. cities. Atlantic City's 140-year-old parade is the oldest, and the promenade on New York's Fifth Avenue, immortalized in Irving Berlin's song, "Easter Parade," is perhaps the best known. The annual White House Easter Egg Roll takes place in the nation's capitol city on Easter Monday. (You'll learn more about this tradition on the next page.)
  • England - In England, in Hallaton (in the County of Leicestershire), every Easter Monday, there is the Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking. The story goes that a woman was saved by a hare running across the path of a bull on Easter Monday hundreds of years ago. As a token of her appreciation, she bequeathed a piece of land to the rector. The sole condition to this bequest was that the rector have a hare pie made to be distributed to parishioners together with a large quantity of ale every year. (More on hare pies later.)

Eight-year-old Benjamin Brott (front) from Fairfax, VA, rolls his egg on the South Lawn of the White House, April 12, 2004 in Washington, DC.

STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images

Egg Rolling and other Easter Activities

Held for more than 120 years, early egg rolling activities took place on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. However, under President Rutherford Hayes, the event was moved to the South Lawn of the White House, where it is still held.

­While the children's games have changed over time, simply rolling a hard-boiled egg across the green lawns is still a high point of the day. Presidents and First Ladies and other celebrities have traditionally greeted the children, who, at the end of the day, receive collectible wooden eggs complete with the signatures of the President and ­First Lady.

Another i­nteresting custom: Some countries have pace egg rolling. Eggs are rolled downhill as a symbol of the stone being rolled away from the tomb where Jesus was laid. This became popular despite scholars' assertion that the stone over the tomb was actually rolled uphill!

The Easter Monday tradition of "Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking" in Hallaton, Leicestershire, England, is really quite intricate. To start, the ingredients of a hare pie include:

  • 4 pounds of flour
  • 2 pounds of lard
  • 2 hares
  • 3 pounds of onions
  • 7 pounds of potatoes
  • Seasoning

­The pie is cooked on Easter Monday, using a 20-inch square tin, at either Torch House, which belongs to Torch Trust for the Blind (previously Hallaton Convent), or at the Bewick Arms.

The pie is paraded in a procession through the village from the Fox Inn to the gate of St. Michael's Church. Immediately behind the pie in the procession are the three "bottles" that are used for the Bottle Kicking match. These are actually small barrels, about 14 inches high by 9 inches in diameter and weighing about 20 pounds. Two of these are brown in color and filled with about a gallon of ale each. The remaining "bottle" is left empty and is colored red and white.

The pie is distributed by the rector of St. Michael's Church to the crowd. Some of the pie is put into sacks and carried away with other processions through the village, ending at the top of Hare Pie bank. This is where the Bottle Kicking match takes place between Hallaton and the neighboring village of Medbourne. There is no limit to the number of competitors in the Bottle Kicking match.

The competitors arrange themselves in a circle at the top of the bank. The chairman of the Bottle Kicking match throws the first full "bottle" into the air and allows it to fall on the ground. This is repeated twice more. When the "bottle" lands on the ground the third time, it is "in play." What follows is a chaotic battle between the two teams to move the "bottle" toward their respective villages over their respective touchlines, which are between two separate streams at each end of Hare Pie bank, approximately three-quarters of a mile apart. There are numerous hedges, lanes, ditches and even barbed wire between the two touchlines.

Once the first score has been made, the whole process is repeated with the empty bottle. If the previous losing team effects a tie, the process is repeated with the final bottle. At the end of the match, both teams walk back to Hallaton, where the winning team drinks both bottles and the losing team has to watch!

It is believed that Hare Pie bank was previously a stowe, a place of pagan worship. The current chairman of the Bottle Kicking match would also be known as the Master of the Stowe. To get more information on this tradition, including an interesting peek at what the bottle-kicking match looks like, check out Hallaton: Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scramble.

For more information on Easter and related topics, check out the links on the next page.