Easter Sunday

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Easter Sunday

Al-'Id Al-Kabir, Husvét, Ostern, Paasch Zondag,
Pääsiässunnuntai, Paaske, Pâques, Pascha, Paschen,
Paschoa, Pascua, Pashka, Paskdagen, Påske, Pasqua,
Velikonoce, Velykos, Vuzkresenie, Wielkanoc, Zadig

On Easter Sunday Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although American popular culture often pays more attention to Christmas, Christians believe Easter to be the most important festival in the church year. It represents the climax of Holy Week, as well as the end of the long Lenten season. Moreover the Easter festival, with its focus on Jesus' death and resurrection and their significance for his followers, embodies some of the most important teachings of the Christian religion (see also Redemption; Salvation).

According to the Bible, Jesus' followers returned to his tomb early in the morning on the first Easter Sunday. They found it empty. Then they received the glorious news that Jesus had risen from the dead. The four accounts of this event recorded in the Christian Bible vary somewhat. In three of the four versions, an angel or angels were the first to bring the joyous news to Jesus' followers (Matthew 28:1-8, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12). The risen Jesus appeared soon afterwards. In the other account, Christ himself, in the company of two angels, delivered the news of the Resurrection to Mary Magdalene as she stood outside his tomb and wept (John 20:1-18). (For more on the events of the first Easter, see also Peter.)


Some scholars believe that the earliest Easter celebrations took place in the mid-second century in Asia Minor, a region which now lies in the nation of Turkey. Christians in this area focused their Easter celebrations on the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, a theme later assigned to Good Friday. They called the holiday "Pascha," a Greek word inspired by the Aramaic pronunciation of the Hebrew word Pesach, which means Passover. Indeed, the Asia Minor Christians held Pascha on the same dates that their Jewish neighbors prepared for and celebrated Passover, that is, on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the Jewish month of Nisan. The observances included fasting, prayer, and readings from scripture, including the writings of the Jewish prophets and the Passover story as recounted in the Book of Exodus.

Other scholars contend that the first Easter celebrations took place in Rome around the year 165. The Romans celebrated Pascha on the Sunday after Passover. Their celebrations, too, emphasized Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross.

By the third century Christians from Alexandria, Egypt, began to advance a new interpretation of the Easter festival. They understood it to honor Jesus'passage between death and new life. Therefore their celebrations focused on both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection (for more on crucifixion, see Cross).

By the early fourth century Church authorities sought to unify these diverse Easter worship services. In the year 325 the Council of Nicaea, an important meeting of early Church leaders, settled the issue of when to celebrate Pascha. The Council decreed that all Christians adopt the Roman date for the festival (for more on this issue, see Easter, Date of).

The fourth century also witnessed the blossoming of Holy Week. Christian communities began to assign the commemoration of various aspects of the story of Jesus'betrayal, arrest, and execution to different days in the week preceding Easter Sunday. This left the celebration of the Resurrection to Easter Sunday alone. Before this development the Pascha festival served as an occasion to ponder the entire mystery of Christ's incarnation, suffering, sacrificial death, resurrection, and ascension, as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit (see also Pentecost). Afterwards, Easter Sunday observances increasingly dedicated themselves to celebrating a single aspect of this mystery, that is, the Resurrection. In a certain sense Easter Sunday observances became less important, as various aspects of what had once been a unified festival were spread out over the days of Holy Week and the weeks that follow.

During the Middle Ages western European Christians began to focus their Holy Week devotions more and more on Good Friday. This emphasis made sense to medieval Christians because the spiritual teachings of the time linked human redemption and salvation more to Jesus'death, commemorated on Good Friday, than to his resurrection. Nevertheless this development tended to further diminish the attention given to Easter Sunday celebrations.

Until the early Middle Ages, the Easter Vigil, beginning late at night on Holy Saturday and lasting until the early morning hours of Easter Sunday, functioned as the primary church service commemorating the Resurrection. In the seventh century Roman Catholic officials introduced a Sunday morning Easter service. Over the centuries the Sunday service gained in popularity among western European Christians, even as the Easter Vigil service attracted fewer and fewer worshipers. By the dawn of the twentieth century the Easter Vigil service was one of the least attended services in Holy Week. Reforms made in the latter half of the twentieth century, including the restoration of the Easter Vigil from daylight to evening hours, have helped to reintegrate this once-vital service into the round of Holy Week observances.

Religious Customs

Many Christians attend church services on Easter Sunday morning. Those scheduled near dawn take their name, sunrise service, from this early hour. In addition, some churches offer an Easter Vigil beginning late at night on Holy Saturday. Easter services often include special sights, sounds, and rituals - all designed to express the happiness inspired by the arrival of the long-awaited Easter festival. In Roman Catholic churches as well as those Protestant churches that observe liturgical colors, priests wear white robes. Easter Sunday services may also include special musical offerings and bell ringing. The word alleluia is reintroduced into worship in those churches which have abstained from using it during Lent. Baptisms, or the renewal of the congregation's baptismal vows, may also be added to the Easter service. In addition, some Protestant churches include a folk custom known as the flowering of the cross at some point during their Easter Sunday ceremonies.

Orthodox Easter

In Orthodox churches Easter Sunday celebrations take place both on Holy Saturday and on Easter Sunday. Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. This ancient division of the church took root in eastern Europe, the Middle East and north Africa. Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy split apart from each other about 1,000 years ago, so some Orthodox customs differ from those observed by Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants.

The earliest Orthodox service associated with Easter Sunday takes place on the morning of Holy Saturday (for more on this service, see Easter Vigil). A second observance, known as the Resurrection service, begins late at night on Holy Saturday. This ceremony, too, belongs to Easter Sunday, and in past times began in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning. Those attending the service bring white candles from home, or pick them up as they enter the church. The church fills with worshipers as the hour nears midnight and the lights inside the church dim. Then at midnight, the priest emerges from behind the screens that enclose the altar holding a single lit candle. The flame represents the risen Christ. As he holds the candle before the congregation the priest declares, "Come ye and receive light from the unwavering Light; and glorify Christ, who has risen from the dead." Then he passes the flame to several worshipers, who in turn light their neighbors' candles until everyone in the church is carrying a glowing candle. Next, the priest leads the candle-bearing congregation in a procession around the church, which represents the arrival of the myrrh-bearing women at Jesus' tomb early on Sunday morning (see also Mary Magdalene). The priest proclaims the Resurrection outside the main doors of church, and the congregation reenters the building, now ablaze with lights.

In Greek Orthodox churches the Resurrection service is punctuated with the singing of a joyful hymn strongly associated with Easter, "Christos Anesti" (Christ Is Risen). Red Easter eggs may be distributed to the congregation as they leave the church. At the end of the service some people take their lighted candle home with them and use the flame to light the vigil lamp in front of their icons, religious images used in prayer and worship (see also Easter Fires). Among the Orthodox the Resurrection service is the most well-attended event of the year. Orthodox churches also offer a Sunday service, known as the Great Vespers of Agape, on Easter Sunday.

At the end of the late-night Resurrection service, many Orthodox Christians enjoy a large meal which marks the beginning of Easter and the end of the Lenten fast. This late-night Easter feast typically includes several items forbidden during Lent, such as cheese, meat soup, eggs, and wine. Many feel that the first food to pass their lips at this time should be a traditional, red Easter egg. The red color represents the blood of Christ, the egg itself new life, and the shell Jesus' tomb. The cracking of this egg represents Christ's emerging from the tomb. Slavic and other Orthodox families often bring a basket of Easter foods to church with them so that the priest may bless the Easter meal. On Easter Sunday and throughout Easter Week Greeks and other Orthodox Christians greet each other with the phrase "Christ is risen!" (Christos Anesti in Greek, Khristos voskrese in Church Slavonic). The correct reply is, "Indeed he has risen!" (Alithos anesti in Greek, Voistinu voskrese in Church Slavonic). Greeks may also respond Alithos o Kirios, "Truly the Lord." Some Orthodox Christians use this greeting throughout the Easter season.

Easter Foods

All over the world Christians feast in celebration of Easter. In many countries the Easter banquet features roast lamb. In others the feast centers around ham (see also Pig). Easter eggs not only serve as a traditional holiday food, but also provide a focal point for many Easter activities and games. In many countries special breads, often made with the rich dairy products forbidden during Lent, grace the Easter table. Greeks usually serve tsoureki, a sweet, braided loaf with red Easter eggs tucked into the dough. Portuguese Easter celebrations often feature folar, another sweet braided loaf studded with Easter eggs. Russians enjoy kulich, a sweet bread often baked in coffee cans to insure a tall majestic loaf, which is later topped with white icing. Many Italians bake an Easter bread called columba pasquale in a brown paper mold shaped to resemble a dove in flight. On Easter Sunday mornings Czech families often wake up to a breakfast of bábovka, a sweet, frosted bread filled with whipped cream. Many Austrians breakfast on a rich coffee cake known as guglhupf.

Folk Customs

Of all the old folklore associated with Easter, the tales and customs concerning the Easter Bunny have probably left the greatest mark on the popular observance of the holiday. Certainly children in many lands have come to view the candy and other sweet treats distributed by the Easter Bunny as traditional Easter foods. The Easter egg hunt, also popular with children, traces its roots back to legends concerning the Easter Bunny. Other Easter egg activities appear to have developed independently of the Easter Bunny legend, including egg rolling, egg tapping, and constructing egg trees. Easter customs less familiar to contemporary Americans include practices related to the special qualities of Easter water and Easter sunlight (see also Easter Sun). The custom of wearing new clothes at Easter grew out of ancient religious practices linking the festival with baptism. The Easter parade also evolved from an old religious custom known as an Emmaus walk. Although many contemporary Americans return to work on Easter Monday, the day following Easter, in past times the games, feasts and festivities associated with Easter continued through Easter Week. In most predominantly Christian countries Easter Monday is a holiday.

Names for Easter

In numerous European languages, the word for Easter comes from the ancient Greek term for the festival, Pascha. For example, the Greeks still call the festival Pascha, while the Russians know it as Pashka. The Italian word for Easter is Pasqua, the Spanish Pascua, the Portuguese Paschoa, and the French Pâques. Belgians refer to the holiday as Pas- chen, the Danes as Paaske, the Dutch as Paschen or Paasch Zondag, the Norwegians as Påske, and the Swedes as Paskdagen. By contrast the English word "Easter" and the German Ostern evolved from a different root word (for more on this issue, see Easter, Origin of the Word). Other European words for Easter include the Bulgarian Vuzkresenie, the Czech Velikonoce, the Polish Wielkanoc, and the Lithuanian Velykos, as well as the Hungarian Husvét and the Finnish Pääsiässunnuntai. The Armenians call the holiday Zadig, while the Syrians know it as Al-'Id Al-Kabir.

Easter Symbols

Symbols of the holiday found in many churches at Easter time include the cross, the lily, the lamb, and the paschal candle. Fire, light, and sunrise also recollect the events of the first Easter and have been incorporated into many Christian Easter observances (see also Easter Fires; Easter Sun; Sunrise Service). Other Easter-related symbols include the butterfly, the peacock, the phoenix, and the number eight, which stand for the Easter themes of resurrection and eternal life. In churches where bells have been silent for the last several days of Holy Week, ringing bells denote Easter joy. Representations of the empty tomb found by Jesus'followers on Easter Sunday morning also serve as religious symbols of the holiday. Throughout the year weekly Christian worship services are scheduled on Sundays to recall the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on that day of the week.

The liturgical color for Easter is white or gold. White represents joy and purity, while gold stands for glory, exultation, and illumination. Liturgical color schemes dictate the color of clerical robes and other church decorations in those churches that observe them.

The Easter egg is probably the most widely used folk symbol of the holiday. In the United States the Easter Bunny also serves as a popular Easter folk symbol. In past generations many people wore new clothes, especially new hats, on Easter Sunday, to represent the Easter themes of renewal and new beginnings (see also Easter Parade). This custom has fallen somewhat out of favor in the United States, however. In Sweden the Easter witch is a popular symbol of the holiday.

Further Reading

Bradshaw, Paul F. "Easter in Christian Tradition." In Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Easter and Passover: Origin and History to Modern Times. Two Liturgical Traditions series, volume 5. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Bradshaw, Paul F. "The Origins of Easter." In Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times. Two Liturgical Traditions series, volume 5. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.

Web Site

"Pascha - Sunday of the Resurrection. Christ Is Risen! Truly He Is Risen!" a brief article on the Resurrection service posted at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia's web site at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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