What do you think of when you hear the word "Easter"? If you're like most Americans, bunnies, cute fuzzy chicks, and colorful eggs spring to mind. For the more traditional among us, Easter is an opportunity to dress up in our finery, enjoy an inspiring church service, and visit with friends.
While these delightful, family-oriented activities draw us together socially, they do make it easy to forget -- momentarily -- that there's a sober and serious side to Easter. We all know the story, even if it occasionally gets lost in the tradition: that three days after His lonely death on the crucifix, the stone of His tomb rolled aside, and Jesus emerged reborn before ascending to Heaven in glory.
Although Easter has taken second fiddle to Christmas in many parts of the world, it was once the principal festival of the Christian calendar; and in some traditions, it remains so. It's definitely the second oldest Christian observance after the Sabbath, and is quite literally the root from which all of Christianity has sprung. Without His Resurrection, the glorious proof that He was, indeed, both the Son of Man and the Son of God, Jesus Christ's teachings might not have taken hold as firmly as they did in that brutal era of Roman repression.
Easter as currently celebrated in the English-speaking world is a convergence of Christian, Hebrew, and European pre-Christian beliefs. Because Jesus was crucified during Passover, for the first few centuries of Christian tradition, the Passover and the Resurrection were celebrated together. The Passover celebration has since faded from Christian tradition (except in some Eastern churches), and the holiday has differentiated into Good Friday and Easter, not to mention associated holidays and observances like Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Palm Sunday.
The name of the holiday itself derives from "Eostre," the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox (the springtime occurrence when day and night are of equal length). When the peoples of the British Isles accepted Christianity, Eostre's festival became Christ's, and her familiar name was retained for it. Eventually, it became a movable feast that now occurs on a Sunday sometime between March 21 and April 25.
Most of the traditions now associated with Easter (the bunnies, chicks, and eggs) aren't the childish frivolities they seem at first glance. They're all associated with the concept of rebirth and renewal, in terms of both springtime and the Resurrection. However, the family-oriented Easter that we Americans celebrate didn't become popular after the Civil War. Some say that its newfound popularity was, in fact, a nationwide symbol of renewal, resurrection, and rebirth -- as we tried to put behind us the scars of the past, and moved onward with renewed hope.
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