Easter-Another Mixed Up Holiday
First, let me apologize for not posting last week. We had company from out of town, my daughter had her first track meet, and time ended up getting away from me. I'm sorry!
Second, let's talk about compromise. You may be thinking, "What does that have to do with Easter?" Like some other holidays we have already discussed, Easter is a a compromise between Christianity and the various "pagan" holidays that pre-date Christ.
Winters in Northern Europe are long, dark, and very cold. Thousands of years ago, winter meant that many people would die before spring. The plants looked dead, many animals migrated or hibernated, and the sun was rare. Spring marked the return of life. People celebrated the arrival of spring with feasts and bonfires. They showed their thanks for all the newborn animals, the blooming flowers, and the return of the sun to grow crops. There was even a goddess of spring. Eostre was her name, and the hare was her favorite animal. Eggs were also an important part of spring. They were a symbol of new life, and were given as gifts.
When Christian missionaries began to make their way north, they encountered these long held traditions and faced a dilemma. If they forced people to give up their traditions, resentment would spread and few converts would result. Instead, they decided to compromise. They simply incorporated the traditions into Christianity. Instead of celebrating the return of spring, they were now celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Instead of the egg being a symbol of new life in spring, it was dyed red to represent the blood of Jesus. Eventually, most people forgot about Eostre, and the new holiday spread far and wide.
Compromise was occurring elsewhere during the early years of Christianity. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all recorded detailed accounts of the events leading up to Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection, but no one recorded a date. Early Christians, in secret of course, celebrated according to the timing of Passover, since this was the meal Jesus shared with his disciples the day before his crucifixion. The first official record of Easter, which wasn't yet it's name, is from Irenaeus around 200 AD. He wrote about fasting and a sunrise service, but that was the extent of the holiday.
I wasn't until 325 at the Council of Nicaea that the Church settled on a way of setting the date for Easter. It was decided that everyone would celebrate on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, and that the date had to fall between March 22 and April 25. It seems confusing to modern Christians, but at the time, most people relied on the moon to plan their daily events. The Council also decided that the forty days leading up to Easter would be a time of fasting and personal sacrifice. The fast would end on Easter Sunday with a feast. This period of fasting did not gain the name Lent (Latin for suffering) until Pope Gregory released his calendar over a thousand years later. Gradually the Holy Days were named, beginning with Ash Wednesday. The rules for fasting were hammered out after centuries of trial and error.
When the Reformation spread across Europe, many Protestant churches dropped the Christian holidays, including Christmas, Easter, and Lent because they felt that there was too much paganism involved. Martin Luther, however, did not recommend this course. He actually said, "Lent, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week shall be retained, not to force anyone to fast, but to preserve the Passion History." Despite his efforts, the holidays were discouraged by Protestants, and eventually faded out in many areas. The traditions were kept in Germany though, and when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, Easter returned to England. Celebrations of the holiday quickly spread around the world.
Today, when many traditons are losing ground, Lent actually seems to be gaining in popularity. It is one of the most heavily attended church services of the year. Easter has survived a lot of the commercialism of other holidays, perhaps because of its floating date. Families join for feasts of ham or lamb. Children go to Easter Egg Hunts or egg rolling races. There are parades and baskets full of candy. The ancient symbols of new life are still used to celebrate today.
There is so much information about Easter that I have topics for years to come! As I leave you to prepare for your visit from the Easter Bunny and your trip to church in your new clothes, I want to share some lines from my two favorite songs associated with Easter. Enjoy!
Lo in the Grave Robert Lowry
Easter Parade Irving Berlin
In your easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
You'll be the grandest lady in the easter parade.
I'll be all in clover and when they look you over,
I'll be the proudest fellow in the easter parade.
On the avenue, fifth avenue, the photographers will snap us,
And you'll find that you're in the rotogravure.
Oh, I could write a sonnet about your easter bonnet,
And of the girl I'm taking to the easter parade.