Easter: Historical Origins of the Holiday

The Date
Prior to A.D. 325, "Easter" was celebrated on many different days of the week. In 325 A.D., emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. He issued the Easter Rule that Easter was to be celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon on or after the vernal (Spring) equinox. Only the Celtic church in Britain and Ireland refused to accept the date until 664 because of their own Celtic calendar. However, the "full moon" in the rule is the ecclesiastical full moon, which is defined as the fourteenth day of a tabular lunation, where day 1 corresponds to the ecclesiastical New Moon. It does not always occur on the same date as the astronomical full moon. The ecclesiastical "vernal equinox" is always on March 21. So it is celebrated on a Sunday between the dates of March 22 and April 25.

Calculation of the Ecclesiastical Calendar
Easter Dating Method

The Paschal Full Moon may occur from March 21 through April 18. Thus the date of Easter is from March 22 through April 25. The date of the Paschal full moon is determined from tables, and it may differ from the date of the actual full moon by up to two days. To add to the confusion, many countries did not start using the Gregorian calendar until much later, so the Easter tradition in those countries was celebrated at different times. Even the Catholic Church and many Catholic areas of Europe didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1582. Thus making a global modern Eastern tradition fairly "new" in man's history, however, the tradition and symbology of Easter has been around for ages prior to this. The meaning was carried through and adapted to suit the new way of life, living and thinking for the time.

The Name Easter
Venerable Bede, a monk and an English historian of the early 8th century, made the comparison to the month April with mensis paschalis, translated as "when the old festival was observed with the gladness of a new solemnity." The root pasch, from which so many other names for Easter are derived, is from the Hebrew pesach (Passover) from the verb form "he passed over." There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic Fathers. Thus the Passover, with Christ being the true Paschal Lamb, was the one that was ultimately sacrificed as an example for mankind. His crucifixion and resurrection became the epitome of death and rebirth and thusly celebrated at a time that such ideals and notions were already present in the culture.

Venerable Bede's writings also show that he derived the modern word "Easter" from the Norse Ostara or Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month of April, and called Eostur-monath, was dedicated. This festival of spring took place around March 21 (modern calendar) when nature is in resurrection after the darkness of winter. In myths, the goddess Eastre who saved a bird whose wings were frozen from the harsh winter by turning it into a hare. This magical hare could actually lay eggs. Thus, this became a proposed origination of the Easter Bunny symbol. Prior to the Christian era, rabbits were also a symbol of fertility, aptly so for their reproductive abilities.

The springtime theme of death and rebirth is found throughout many belief systems. With Ostara being just one correspondence. Similar Goddesses were known by other names in ancient cultures around the Mediterranean, and were celebrated in the springtime. This early festival of Eastre occurred at the same time of year as the Christian observance of the Resurrection of Christ, both were a celebration of life renewed.

In the early church, those who were baptized at the Easter Vigil were dressed in a white robe. They would wear that robe throughout the whole Easter week as a symbol of their new life. To wear new clothes was to indicate their share in the new life of Christ which was an external profession and symbol of the Easter grace. The name given by the Frankish church to Jesus' resurrection festival included the Latin word alba (translated "white" and "sunrise") (This was a reference to the white robes that were worn during the festival.) When the name of the festival was translated into German it became "ostern". Ostern has also been proposed as the origin of the word "Easter".

From ancient times eggs were decorated and exchanged. The Romans, Gauls, Chinese, Egyptians and Persians all cherished the egg as a symbol of the universe. Eggs were symbols of creation and new life along with being the major symbol of fertility. Even today many refer to the Cosmic Egg which brought forth all life. In Christianity the symbolism of the egg changed from nature's rebirth (spring) to the rebirth of man. Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose.

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