Easter, one of the most important Christian holidays, got
its name and many of its customs and symbols from a pagan festival. This ancient
holiday honored Eostre, the goddess of springtime and sunrise. Her name came
from the word east, where the sun rises. Every spring, northern European people
celebrated the festival of Eostre to honor the awakening of new life in nature.
Later, Christians related the rising of the sun to the Resurrection of Christ
and to their own spiritual rebirth.
The Crucifixion occurred in the spring. The Last Supper, which took place the day before the Crucifixion, was a traditional Jewish Passover feast. The early Christians celebrated Easter on the same date as Passover. But they were not happy with this date because they wanted Easter to fall on a Sunday every year, and Passover did not. For some time, Easter was celebrated on different dates in different places. Finally, in 325 A.D,. a group of church leaders solved the problem with the help of astronomers. They decided that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21. The full moon was important because many years ago , it helped to guide travellers who wished to join friends and relatives at big Easter festivals.
Many modern Easter symbols came from pagan times. The egg, for example, was a fertility symbol long before Christian era. The ancient Persians, Greeks, and Chinese exchanged eggs at their spring festivals. In Christian times, the egg took on a new meaning, symbolizing the tomb from which Christ rose. The ancient custom of dyeing eggs at Easter time is still very popular with American children.
The Easter bunny also came from pre-Christian times. The rabbit, a very fertile animal, was a natural symbol of new life. Today, children enjoy eating candy bunnies and listening to stories about the Easter bunny, who brings Easter eggs in a fancy basket.
Traditionally, the meats associated with Easter are lamb and ham. Both of these meats have had symbolic meaning since ancient times. In the Old Testament, Abraham used the lamb as a sacrifice after God ordered him not to kill his son Issac. The lamb has always been a part of the Passover tradition. For Christians, the lamb symbolizes the sacrifice of Christ. For thousand years, the pig has been a symbol of good luck. On Easter Sunday, smoked or cooked ham is the traditional main course in both Europe and the United States.
Easter is a happy time. The continual rebirth of physical life on earth symbolizes the eternity of spiritual life. But the deeper meaning of easter is a profound paradox. The story of Christ implies that for all Christians the beginning of eternal life is physical death.
Passover, the festival which Jesus was celebrating at the
Last Supper, is still one of the most important Jewish holidays. It is a tribute
to freedom, reminding Jews of their liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt.
According to the Old Testament, almost 4,000 years ago the Hebrews(Jews) were slaves in Egypt. The men were used as workers to build great Egyptian monuments. When Moses asked Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt , to let the Hebrews make a religious pilgrimage, Pharaoh refused. For this refusal, God punished Egypt with a series of horrible plagues. The last and worst plague was the death of every Egyptian first born son. The Hebrews escaped this punishment by putting the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. The Angel of Death passed over households so marked. Thus, the holiday is called Passover.
After this final plague, Paraoh agreed to release the Hebrews. Then he changed his mind and sent his soldiers after them. Another miracle-the parting of the Red Sea-allowed the Hebrews to escape from their Egyptian pursuers.
While preparing to flee from Egypt, the Hebrews ate flat bread(called matzos) because there was no time to wait for their dough to rise. Today, Jews all over the world observe Passover and eat matzos in memory of the hardships their suffered. Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside Israel observe the holiday for eight days, Reform Jews and Israel Jews for seven.
Passover, like all Jewish holidays, begins after sunset. On the first and second nights of the holiday, Jewish families have a special feast called a seder. At this holiday dinner, they sing songs, say prayers, and retell the story of the escape from Egypt. On the seder table, there is always wine, a sacramental beverage that is part of most Jewish religious services. Foods that symbolize the story of Passover are also used in the religious ceremony. In addition the matzos(called the bread of affliction or suffering), there is a bitter herb(often horseradish root)to recall the bitterness of a life of slavery. There is also an apple, nut, and wine mixture, which symbolizes the mortar that the Jewish slaves used when they were forced to build Egyptian monuments.
The Passover story of escape from slavery is, to many Christians, a foreshadowing of humanity's release from sin through the death and Resurrection of Christ. Thus, in many ways the spring holidays of Easter and Passover remind us of the common heritage of Chriatians and Jews the world over.