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Easter is generally accounted the most important holiday of the Christian year, observed each spring to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (after his death by crucifixion; see Good Friday), which Christians believe happened at about this time of year, almost two thousand years ago. (Easter can also refer to the season of the church year, lasting for nearly two months, which follows this holiday. See Easter (season).)

The festival's name in English (and other Germanic languages) is said to derive from Eostre, a pagan goddess, whose primary festival fell in the spring and in whose month, 'Eostremonat,' Easter generally fell. (The etymology is contested.) However, in most other languages (see list at bottom of page), the holiday's name is derived from Pesach, the Hebrew name of Passover, a Jewish holiday to which it is intimately linked. Easter depends on Passover not only for much of its symbolic meaning but also for its position in the calendar; the Last Supper shared by Jesus and his disciples before his crucifixion is generally thought of as a Passover seder.

In Western Christianity Easter Day always falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25. The following day, Easter Monday, is recognized as a legal holiday in most countries with a significant Christian tradition (with the notable exception of the United States).

Table of contents
1 The date of Easter
2 Easter's position in the church year
3 The origin of Easter
4 The religious observation of Easter
5 Easter outside the church services
6 Miscellanea
7 External links

The date of Easter

Easter and the holidays that are related to it are moveable feasts, in that they do not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars (which follow the motion of the Sun and the seasons). Instead, they are based on a lunar calendar like that of the Jewish year. The precise date of Easter has often been a matter for contention.

At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 it was decided that Easter would be celebrated on the same date throughout the Church. The specific method (the Sunday after the 14th day of the first lunar month of spring) was not determined by the Council. Instead, the matter was referred to Alexandria. The practice of this city was essentially Easter is observed the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox. Eventually, all churches accepted the Alexandrian method of computing Easter, which set the northern hemisphere vernal equinox at 21 March (the actual equinox may fall one or two days earlier or later) and determined the date of the full moon using the Metonic cycle. Since western churches now use the Gregorian calendar to calculate the date and Eastern Orthodox churches the original Julian calendar, their dates are not usually aligned in the present day.

At a summit in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997, the World Council of Churches proposed a reform in the calculation of Easter which would have replaced an equation-based method of calculating Easter with direct astronomical observation; this would have side-stepped the calendar issue and eliminated the difference in date between the Eastern and Western churches. The reform was propsed for implementation starting in 2001, but it was not ultimately adopted by any member body. See Reform of the date of Easter.

A list of Easter's date for the next several years is at the bottom of the page.


The calculations for the date of Easter can be somewhat complicated. See computus for a discussion covering both the traditional tabular methods and more exclusively mathematical algorithms such as the one developed by the famous mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss.

In the western church Easter has not fallen on the earliest of the 35 possible dates, March 22, since 1818, and will not do so again until 2285; it fell on the latest possible date, April 25 most recently in 1943, and will next fall on that date in 2038.

Historically, other forms of determining the holiday's date were also used. For example, Quartodecimanism was the practice of setting the holiday on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan.

External link

Easter's position in the church year

Western Christianity

In Western Christianity, Easter marks the end of the forty days of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at Easter Sunday. (See under Lent for more about its length.)

The week before Easter is very special in the Christian tradition: the Sunday before is Palm Sunday, and the last three days before Easter are Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (sometimes referred to as Silent Saturday). Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday respectively commemmorate Jesus's entry in Jerusalem, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday are sometimes referred to as the Triduum (Latin for "Three Days"). In some countries Easter lasts two days, with the second called "Easter Monday". Many churches start celebrating Easter late in the evening of Holy Saturday at a service called the Easter Vigil.

The Season of Easter begins on Easter Sunday and lasts until the day of Pentecost, seven weeks later.

Eastern Christianity

In Eastern Christianity, preparations begin with Great Lent. Following the fifth Sunday of Great Lent is Palm Week, which ends with Lazarus Saturday. Lazarus Saturday officially brings Great Lent to a close, although the fast continues for the following week. After Lazarus Saturday comes Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and finally Easter itself, or Pascha (Παδχα), and the fast is broken immediately after the Divine Liturgy. Easter is immediately followed by Bright Week, during which there is no fasting, even on Wednesday and Friday.

The Paschal Divine Liturgy generally takes place around midnight, into the early morning of Pascha. Placing the Paschal Divine Liturgy at midnight guarantees that no Divine Liturgy will come earlier in the morning, ensuring its place as the preeminent "Feast of Feasts" in the liturgical year.

The origin of Easter

There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic fathers. Indeed, the observance of any special holidays throughout the Christian year is an innovation postdating the early church. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the perpetuation of an old [i.e. pagan] usage, 'just as many other customs have been established,' stating that neither the Lord nor his apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. (Many commentators, however, have interpreted the last supper as a passover seder at which Jesus presided, indicating that he was not on the other hand opposed to the observance of annual holidays!)

Just as the most commonly accepted etymology for the word "easter" derives it from the Germanic goddes Eostre, many have traced the holiday's origins to that goddess' festival. According to the Venerable Bede, an English historian of the early 8th century, Easter is derived from the Norse Ostara or Eostre, a festival of spring at the vernal equinox, March 21, when nature is in resurrection after winter. Hence, the rabbits, notable for their fecundity, and the eggs, colored like rays of the returning sun and the northern lights or aurora borealis. Children roll easter eggs in England. Everywhere they hunt the many-colored Easter eggs, brought by the Easter rabbit. Hidden in the play are, it has been argued, the vestiges of a fertility rite, the eggs and the rabbit both symbolizing fertility. (A rabbit, furthermore, was sometimes considered the escort of the goddess.)

Another etymology attempts to derive "Easter" from the Sumerian goddess Ishtar; its propenents also argue that aspects of an ancient festival accompanied the name, claiming that the worship of Bel and Astarte was anciently introduced into Britain, and that the hot cross buns of Good Friday and dyed eggs of Easter Sunday figured in the Chaldean rites just as they do now.

However, most languages (as explained elsewhere in this article) derive their name from the holiday from "pesach," the proper Hebrew name of Passover; and although some pagan customs and words undoubtedly have become linked to the holiday, most continue to see its main origins in that Jewish observance.

The religious observation of Easter

Western Christianity

Religious observation among Christians of Western traditions are as varied as any other aspect of Christianity that came to the modern world through Western Europe.

Eastern Christianity

Easter is the fundamental and most important festival of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. Every other religious festival on their calendars, including Christmas, is at best secondary in importance to the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord. This is reflected in the cultures of countries that are traditionally Orthodox Christian majority. Easter-connected social customs are native and rich. Christmas customs, on the other hand, are usually foreign imports, either from Germany or the USA. Eastern Rite Catholics in communion with the Pope of Rome have similar emphasis in their calendars, and many of their liturgical customs are very similar.

This is not to say that Christmas and other elements of the Christian liturgical calendar are ignored. Instead, these events are all seen as necessary but preliminary to the full climax of the Resurrection, in which all that has come before reaches fulfillment and fruition. Pascha (Easter) is the primary act that fulfills the purpose of Christ's ministry on earth--to defeat death by dying and to purify and exalt humanity by voluntarily assuming and overcoming human frailty. This is succinctly summarized by the Orthodox Easter hymn "Christ is Risen":


Christ is risen from the dead,
Death, by death, trampling down,
And, upon those in the tombs,
Life, bestowing!

Χρστος άνεστη εκ νεκρον,
Θανατω θανατον πατησας,
Και τοις εν τοις μνεμασι
Ζωην χαρισαμενος!

Христос воскресе из мертвых,
Смертию смерть поправ,
И сущим во гробех живот

Celebration of the holiday begins with the "anti-celebration" of Great Lent. In addition to fasting and prayer, Orthodox are supposed to reduce all entertainment and non-essential activity, gradually eliminating them until Holy Friday. Traditionally, on the evening of Holy Saturday, Pascha vespers begin and these services last until midnight (local time). At midnight, the vespers end and all light in the church building is extinguished. The Pascha liturgy begins at midnight, with the Priest lighting candles held by deacons or other assistants, who then go to light candles held by the congregation. Entirely lit by candle, the priest and congregation process around the church building and return for the completion of the liturgy--again entirely lit by candles held by the congregation. The hymn "Christ is Risen" is sung many times within this service. Immediately after the Pascha liturgy, it is then customary for the congregation to share a meal, essentially an agape dinner (albeit at 2:00am).

The day after, Easter Sunday proper, there is no liturgy, since the liturgy for that day has already been done. Instead, in the afternoon, it is often traditional to hold "Agape vespers". In this service, it is customary for the priest and members of the congregation to read a portion of the Gospel of John (20:19-25 or 19-31) in as many languages as they can manage.

For the remainder of the week (known as "Bright Week"), all fasting is prohibited, and the customary greeting is "Christ is risen!", to be responded with "Truly He is risen!" (See also Pascha greeting)

Anti-Easter Christians

Some Christian fundamentalists reject nearly all the customs surrounding Easter, believing them to be irrevocably tainted with paganism and idolatry. Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate Easter at all, believing it to be entirely a pagan invention [1], and some Christians deny that Jehovah's Witnesses are actually Christian, because they reject belief in the trinity and hold that Jesus is a created being.

In addition, some Christians believe the holiday is named for the Babylonian goddess Ishtar ([1] [1] [1] [1] [1]), but there exist no etymological indications that would support such claims. In lands where this goddess was historically known, the holiday was never called by any name resembling hers.

Easter outside the church services

As with many other Christian dates, the celebration of Easter extends beyond the church. Since its origins, it has been a time of celebration and feasting. Today it is commercially important, seeing wide sales of greeting cards and confectionery such as chocolate Easter eggs, marshmallow bunnies, Peeps, and jelly beans.

In the United States, the Easter holiday has been effectively secularized, so that many American families participate only in the attendant revelry, central to which is decorating Easter eggs on Saturday evening and hunting for them Sunday morning, by which time they have been mysteriously hidden all over the house and garden. According to the children's stories, the eggs were hidden overnight and other treats delivered by the Easter Bunny in an Easter basket which children find waiting for them when they wake up. (The Easter Bunny's motives for doing this are seldom clarified.)

However, these secular rituals often have origins in Christian symbolism; the eggs, for example, can be taken as signs of rebirth and resurrection. Some of Easter's symbols can be traced back still further; some (such as the Easter bunny, originally a hare) seem to have their origins in earlier pagan rituals celebrating nature's springtime rebirth; while others can be traced back to Jewish customs (such as the lamb often eaten at Easter feasts, which echos Passover's paschal lamb). (Eggs can be related to both pre-Christian traditions.)


The word "Easter" in other languages

Names derived from the goddess Eostre:

Names derived from the Hebrew Pesach (Passover):

Names used in other languages

When is Easter?

See also Computus.

West (Roman Catholic and Protestant)

East (Orthodox)

External links