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Easter: Connections between the Christian and Cultural Aspects

Similar to Christmas, Easter is celebrated as a Christian holiday as well as a cultural one. It is characterized with church services celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny delivering them. The latter two may seem unconnected, but are actually derived from the holiday’s Christian roots (see below). Another notable observation is Good Friday, observing Jesus’ crucifixion two days prior to Easter Sunday, but associated celebrations extend several weeks prior, and even afterwards with what is commonly known as Eastertide.

These celebrations are not on annual fixed days, but rather are movable feasts on the Christian liturgical calendar based on the lunisolar calendar - a solar year plus a moon phase - similar to the Hebrew calendar. Based on all of that, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring. In 2022, the holiday falls on April 17 in the Western Gregorian Calendar and April 24 in the Eastern Julian Calendar.

What is Lent?

Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday, is connected, perhaps indirectly, to the Easter season in anticipation of the penitential period of Lent. Seen as a cultural holiday period, Mardi Gras is marked by festivals and culminates on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, commencing Lent. This Tuesday is also known as Shrove Tuesday, and in the United Kingdom, it’s called Pancake Tuesday.

My own experiences of being affiliated with or otherwise exposed to different denominations have shown various ways of observing Lent and its conclusion during Holy Week. Lent commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting. It is common in some denominations for followers to choose to give up something during that period as a practice of penance. Eastern Christians begin Lent with Clean Monday, following the

same principle.

Holy Week

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, celebrating Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Palm leaves, with which people greeted Him, are often given to church congregants on this day, one week before Easter Sunday. Holy Week is also concurrent with the Jewish observance of Passover, celebrating the exodus of Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Jesus, who was born a Jew, had come to Jerusalem to celebrate.

Each day of Holy Week is significant. Lent itself ends on Maundy Thursday, commemorating the Last Supper. The Eucharist, commonly known as communion, is based on the Last Supper. Following the Last Supper were several important events: Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, His betrayal by Judas, and arrest by the Romans. Some denominations practice washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, reflecting loving humility. A practice in the Roman Catholic Church involves the visitation of other churches, known as Seven Churches Visitation. Although not common everywhere, it is common in Singapore (pre-COVID), and a practice which my Catholic wife looks forward to. There is in reality no set number of church visits by participants.

Fasting on Good Friday is observed by some as a reflection of this mourning period. Several years ago in Singapore, I along with several other attendees at a church service helped a lady get on her feet when feeling weak after fasting, showing how far some commitments go. This is the day Christianity states that all the world’s sins were paid for on the Cross.

And two days later, Easter is celebrated, when it was discovered that there was an empty tomb where Jesus had been interned and his appearance to others afterwards as being resurrected. All-night vigils on Saturday, or Sunday sunrise services, are variably conducted.

Easter eggs

The custom of Easter eggs can be traced to early Christians, symbolizing the empty tomb and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as fertilization and rebirth. This custom spread to the Eastern Church and later to the Roman Catholic Church (pre-Reformation) in Western Europe. Some sources indicate that eating eggs was prohibited during Lent in medieval times. During that period, it was common practice in England for children to go door-to-door begging for eggs prior to fasting for Lent.

Chickens would produce eggs as they normally did during Lent, resulting in a surplus of eggs by the time they were allowed to be consumed. Having to eat large amounts of them before getting spoiled, eggs were typically boiled with flowers to give color as a decoration to celebrate Easter.

Easter Bunny

Northwest European folklore presents a hare giving Easter Eggs to children, commonly known as the Easter Bunny. This is also derived from the hare being a motif in medieval church art, sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary, and as a three-hare motif, the Trinity. German Lutherans originated the idea of the Easter Hare, similar to Santa Claus, as determining whether the children are naughty or nice. This idea was brought to America during the 18th century by German Protestant immigrants. The use of Easter baskets has been included in this concept.

The celebrations of Easter eggs have included hiding eggs in the home for children to find and organizing Easter eggs rolls. The latter has been practiced annually on the White House’s South Lawn, hosted by the President and First Lady on Easter Monday, since the 1870s and at various other locations locally going back to the 1850s. Tradition says Dolly Madison hosted the first one in 1814 (months before the White House being set afire).

New clothes

Wearing new clothes is also often practiced, another symbol of rebirth. This dates back to the early Christian observance of the holiday, and it is said that Roman emperor and Christian convert Constantine the Great ordered his court to wear their nicest new clothing on Easter Sunday during the 4th century. Wearing new clothes remained common during medieval times and is still practiced by some today. Arguably reflecting this concept, Easter parades are held in various locations, notably New York City, and these are often informal and unorganized, with or without religious significance, where people stroll wearing fashionable clothing.

Easter food

A traditional Easter dinner is lamb, symbolizing Jesus being the sacrificial lamb on His crucifixion. The sacrificial lamb is also mentioned in the Old Testament, a practice of the Hebrew people before Christianity.

Over time, Easter chocolates and candy, often in the shape of eggs or the Easter Bunny, have come into play in this celebration. The sacrificial lamb has been celebrated with a cake formed in the image of a lamb.

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday commences Eastertide, also commonly known as Paschaltide, among other varying names. The Paschal greeting, also known as Easter Acclamation, is practiced on Easter Sunday, often with the greeting, “Christ is risen!” This is met with the response, “He is risen indeed!” In the Christian calendar, Eastertide continues for seven weeks, concluding on Pentecost Sunday, Eastertide’s 50th day. In many churches, the practice of adorning Easter lilies at the chancel, the space around the altar, is a symbol of the Resurrection.

Easter customs go beyond what is illustrated here, and these vary among different cultures and Christian denominations.

Have a happy and wonderful Easter!

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