We look at what Easter really means and why it’s such an important feature of the Christian calendar, as well as the stories behind some much-loved Easter traditions. You can also read a summary of the Easter story, find out about Jesus and learn what Easter means to non-Christians, too.
What is Easter?
The Easter festival, the oldest and most important festival in the Christian calendar, culminates in the celebration that is Easter Sunday, which today is a time when most of us get together with our families, share a meal and – of course – eat lots of chocolate! Most people know that it was on this day that Jesus was said to come to life after being crucified, visiting his friends and followers once more, but aside from that our knowledge of Easter can be patchy. Even if you’re not a Christian you may be interested to know a little bit more about the Easter story, and the timeline of events that are described in the Christian gospels. Whether you believe in God or not, the Easter story does provide an interesting historical insight into what life was like some 2000 years ago.
At Easter time Christians remember the last week of Jesus’ life, or ‘Holy Week’. It signals the end of Lent, the traditional time of fasting in the Christian calendar, and starts with:
On Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter Sunday) Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover. Many people gathered on the streets to catch a glimpse of Jesus, waving palm branches as he rode by. Because it was Passover, an important celebration, there would have been lots of excitement in the air. For those who believed that Jesus was the Son of God, it was an important moment – they shouted ‘Hosanna’ which means ‘Save us now’.
However, it’s important to remember that Jesus was a controversial figure for many sectors of his immediate community and people further afield. Some people, in particular the authorities, were extremely suspicious of his teachings and claims – today they would have regarded him as a bit of a political agitator. So although many people welcomed Jesus as he rode into the city on the back of a donkey (a signal of peace to the assembled crowds) there would have been some in the crowd who were not so sure about him – these same people could certainly have been amongst those shouting for his execution just days later.
Today people remember Palm Sunday by decorating churches with palm branches, and giving palms out to the congregation, in some cases fashioned into the shape of a cross (in remembrance of Jesus dying on a cross).
The meaning of Easter and the Easter story
Jesus understands his time on Earth is nearly over. He gathers his friends and followers (his 12 Disciples, including figures such as the saints John, Matthew, Mark and Simon – the men who went on to describe their experiences with Jesus in the four gospels, which feature in the New Testamentthe Bible) together to share a final meal with them – the ‘Last Supper’. According to the gospels, Jesus passed round bread (which he told his disciples was ‘his body’) and wine (his ‘blood’); his way of explaining to them that he would soon die. He also told his friends they should love one another – the ‘mandate’ or command from which the term Maundy is derived. It was on this night that Jesus was later betrayed by Judas. Judas identifi
ed Jesus to soldiers working for opposing religious authorities (the ‘High Priests’) in return for a bag of money – those authorities then passed Jesus over to the Roman soldiers who were to eventually execute him.
The ceremony of eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Jesus’ life is practised today in Christian churches in the form of the Eucharist or communion.
The Roman soldiers who arrested Jesus took him to Pontius Pilate, who was in charge of the province at the time. On Good Friday, Jesus’ fate was sealed – Pilate decided to ask a crowd of people outside whether Jesus should be put to death for making claims about being the son of God. They said he should. The method of his execution was one of the most brutal known to man – death by crucifixion or being nailed to a cross. This is why the cross has such great significance to Christians and is behind the tradition of eating hot cross buns on Good Friday.
The gospels describe some truly harrowing last experiences before Jesus died. He was flogged and whipped many times, and was made to wear a crown of sharp thorns while the soldiers in charge of him taunted him. Exhausted after his various ordeals he was then made to carry his own cross to the spot of his execution, a hill overlooking the city. Here he was nailed to the cross and placed alongside two criminals. A sign was placed above Jesus’ cross which read ‘The King of the Jews’.
Unfortunately Jesus would have experienced a very slow and agonising death. The Bible tells that one of the criminals next to Jesus repented for his sins before he died and that suddenly, just before Jesus took his last breath, the sky turned black. He was removed from the cross and buried in a tomb.
Christians today often commemorate Good Friday by attending a ‘Stations of the Cross’ service, where Jesus’ last hours on earth are retraced. As Good Friday is seen as a day of mourning, services are very solemn; churches are left unadorned with flowers or similar decorations, and in some churches pictures and statues are covered over.
Jesus had told his disciples in advance that he would rise again on the third day after his death. He had been buried in a tomb guarded by an enormous stone so that no one could steal the body. When some women came to visit the grave a couple of days after his death they found that the huge stone had been moved and the tomb was empty. Jesus was seen that day and for several days later, and revisited old friends who realised what had been prophesied had come true – Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.
Easter is, therefore, a time of great celebration for Christians. Churches are sometimes decorated with white lillies, traditional Easter flowers, and the mood is joyful and uplifting.
Easter and other religions
The concept of ‘rebirth’, an important theme in the Christian Easter celebration, is common to many religions. Other major world religions such as Islam do not observe Easter but it is closely tied to the Jewish festival of Passover, which falls around the same time as Easter. In fact Christianity and Judaism share the same roots; Christianity developed as a part of Judaism and Jesus was a Jew. Furthermore, the Old Testament, the first part of the Christian Bible, is effectively the same book as the Torah, the sacred Jewish scripture.
The meaning of Easter and the Easter story
Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew), like Easter, is celebrated as a time of rebirth and renewal; while Easter celebrates Jesus’ resurrection, Passover commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. In fact, as Jesus was a Jew, it’s very likely that he and his disciples would have been celebrating the Passover meal on the night of the Last Supper. Important themes for Passover are: the seder; matzoh, family at a Passover table, or Kiddush cup for the wine or Elijah’s (the Prophet) cup.
Another shared tradition between Christianity and Judaism is the significance of eggs at Easter/Passover – hard-boiled eggs are served at Passover and are used to reinforce the idea of rebirth.
Going back further still into history, there are many elements of the Easter celebration which find their roots in Pagan celebrations. In fact the name Easter is believed to be derived from the pagan name ‘Eostre’, the name of the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxons in Northern Europe. Today the Spring Equinox (which occurs around the time of Easter) is celebrated by Wiccans, modern-day ‘neopagans’ – it is one of their most important ‘Sabbats’ or holy days, and is a time when the fertility of the land and the balance of day and night are celebrated.
The origins of Easter traditions
Most popular Easter traditions have their roots far back in history. For example, the idea of the Easter Bunny is no modern invention – you can go as far back as ancient Anglo-Saxon times to trace its origins. Here are some interesting facts about the popular symbols and activities associated with Easter:
The Easter Bunny
In Anglo-Saxon times the hare was an important symbol of fertility so it played a starring role in the pagan festival of Eostre. In fact Eostre was named after the Saxon goddess of Spring. Legend claims that this mystical goddess found a wounded bird and turned it into a hare so it could survive the winter. When this very same hare found it could lay eggs it made a gift of its eggs to the goddess who had protected him. And so the tradition of the Easter hare, or bunny was born.
Chocolate Easter eggs
Eggs have been an important fertility symbol for millennia, and they have always been associated with the rebirth of spring. And as eggs are associated with new life early Christians used them as
The meaning of Easter and the Easter story
a visual symbol of the resurrection of Jesus. When people first starting giving eggs as offerings and gifts at Easter time they used birds eggs. They were painted bright colours to echo the vibrancy of the colours of spring after the darkness of winter.
In the UK and Europe early Easter eggs took the form of duck, hen or goose eggs. These were later replaced by artificial eggs until eventually, as chocolate became a more widely available foodstuff, the first chocolate eggs began to appear, in the early 1800s. The vogue for exchanging chocolate eggs at Easter quickly spread right across the globe so that by the end of the century chocolate eggs became the ubiquitous Easter offering.
The tradition of egg rolling on Easter Monday dates back to Anglo-Saxon Germany. Although historians are unsure of the exact significance of egg rolling, it’s believed that for the early pagans the activity was seen as a way of bringing new life to the land at springtime. For early Christians, meanwhile, egg rolling could have been a representation of the stone being rolled away from Jesus’ tomb.
Hot cross buns
The tradition of eating hot cross buns on Good Friday has its roots even further back than early Christianity. Buns marked with a cross were eaten by the Saxons during their spring celebrations – it’s believed that the bun represented the moon and the cross the moon’s quarters. Chr
istians continued the tradition but to them the cross symbolises the Jesus’ crucifixion.
The special fruit cake eaten at Easter, known as Simnel cake, is steeped in traditional symbolism. Traditionally the cake has a layer of marzipan on top and is decorated with marzipan balls – these symbolise the disciples, though Judas is left out and only 11 balls are added to the cake.
Although chocolate eggs tend to the gift of choice at Easter time today, coloured, decorated eggs have also been an important symbol and gift shared at Easter time. The tradition of colouring and decorating eggs dates back to the Middle Ages when eggs would be painted bright colours
to welcome in the new spring. The tradition continued and was adapted by different countries; in Germany, for example, it remains a tradition to paint eggs green and eat them on Maundy Thursday while in Greece and the Balkans eggs are dyed red to symbolise the blood of Christ.
But the most elaborate take on the tradition came from Russia, where in the late 1800s/early 1900s Russian aristocracy commissioned the French jeweller Faberge to create an egg like no other, fashioned from enamel and encrusted with the most dazzling jewels. These incredible Easter gifts are worth millions of pounds today!