HP057: Easter

HP057: Easter

Easter is the most important religious holiday of the Christian liturgical year, observed between late March and late April (early April to early May in Eastern Christianity) to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which Christians believe occurred after his death by crucifixion in AD 27-33 (see Good Friday). Easter can also refer to the season of the church year, lasting for fifty days, which follows this holiday and ends at Pentecost. Easter Day is also called the Sunday of the Resurrection.

Welcome to History Podcast episode 57. My name is Jason Watts and I will be your host for this special episode. I would like to preface this episode by stating that I am by no means a religious expert. The sources I use will all be attributed in the transcript of this episode. You can find further information on the website at: historypodcast.blogspot.com.

Easter is the most important religious holiday of the Christian liturgical year, observed in April in America to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which Christians believe occurred after his death by crucifixion in AD 27-33.

Good Friday is a holy day celebrated by Christians on the Friday before Easter or Pascha. It commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus at Calvary. Special prayer services are often held on this day with readings from the Gospel accounts of the events leading up to the crucifixion. Mainstream Christian churches view Christ’s crucifixion as a voluntary and vicarious act, and one by which, along with his resurrection on the third day, death itself was conquered.

Easter can also refer to the season of the church year, lasting for fifty days, which follows this holiday and ends at Pentecost.

According to the New Testament, Christ was crucified on the eve of Passover and shortly afterward rose from the dead. In consequence, the Easter festival commemorated Christ’s resurrection. In time, a serious difference over the date of the Easter festival arose among Christians. Those of Jewish origin celebrated the resurrection immediately following the Passover festival, which, according to their Babylonian lunar calendar, fell on the evening of the full moon (the 14th day in the month of Nisan, the first month of the year); by their reckoning, Easter, from year to year, fell on different days of the week.

Christians of Gentile origin, however, wished to commemorate the resurrection on the first day of the week, Sunday; by their method, Easter occurred on the same day of the week, but from year to year it fell on different dates. An important historical result of the difference in reckoning the date of Easter was that the Christian churches in the East, which were closer to the birthplace of the new religion and in which old traditions were strong, observed Easter according to the date of the Passover festival. The churches of the West, descendants of Greco-Roman civilization, celebrated Easter on a Sunday.

Constantine I, Roman emperor, convoked the Council of Nicaea in 325. The council unanimously ruled that the Easter festival should be celebrated throughout the Christian world on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox; and that if the full moon should occur on a Sunday and thereby coincide with the Passover festival, Easter should be commemorated on the Sunday following. Coincidence of the feasts of Easter and Passover was thus avoided.

The Council of Nicaea also decided that the calendar date of Easter was to be calculated at Alexandria, then the principal astronomical center of the world. The accurate determination of the date, however, proved an impossible task in view of the limited knowledge of the 4th-century world. The principal astronomical problem involved was the discrepancy, called the epact, between the solar year and the lunar year. The chief calendric problem was a gradually increasing discrepancy between the true astronomical year and the Julian calendar then in use.

Ways of fixing the date of the feast tried by the church proved unsatisfactory, and Easter was celebrated on different dates in different parts of the world. In 387, for example, the dates of Easter in France and Egypt were 35 days apart. About 465, the church adopted a system of calculation proposed by the astronomer Victorinus (fl. 5th cent.), who had been commissioned by Pope Hilarius (r. 461–68) to reform the calendar and fix the date of Easter. Elements of his method are still in use. Refusal of the British and Celtic Christian churches to adopt the proposed changes led to a bitter dispute between them and Rome in the 7th century.

Reform of the Julian calendar in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, through adoption of the Gregorian calendar, eliminated much of the difficulty in fixing the date of Easter and in arranging the ecclesiastical year; since 1752, when the Gregorian calendar was also adopted in Great Britain and Ireland, Easter has been celebrated on the same day in the Western part of the Christian world. The Eastern churches, however, which did not adopt the Gregorian calendar, commemorate Easter on a Sunday either preceding or following the date observed in the West. Occasionally the dates coincide; the most recent times were in 1865 and 1963.

Because the Easter holiday affects a varied number of secular affairs in many countries, it has long been urged as a matter of convenience that the movable dates of the festival be either narrowed in range or replaced by a fixed date in the manner of Christmas. In 1923 the problem was referred to the Holy See, which has found no canonical objection to the proposed reform. In 1928 the British Parliament enacted a measure allowing the Church of England to commemorate Easter on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. Despite these steps toward reform, Easter continues to be a movable feast.

Christian Origins

Easter is the annual festival commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the principal feast of the Christian year. It is celebrated on a Sunday on varying dates between March 22 and April 25 and is therefore called a movable feast. The dates of several other ecclesiastical festivals, extending over a period between Septuagesima Sunday (the ninth Sunday before Easter) and the first Sunday of Advent, are fixed in relation to the date of Easter.

Connected with the observance of Easter are the 40-day penitential season of Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday and concluding at midnight on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday; Holy Week, commencing on Palm Sunday, including Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, and terminating with Holy Saturday; and the Octave of Easter, extending from Easter Sunday through the following Sunday. During the Octave of Easter in early Christian times, the newly baptized wore white garments, white being the liturgical color of Easter and signifying light, purity, and joy.

The Christian festival of Easter probably embodies a number of converging traditions; most scholars emphasize the original relation of Easter to the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach, from which is derived Pasch, another name for Easter. The early Christians, many of whom were of Jewish origin, were brought up in the Hebrew tradition and regarded Easter as a new feature of the Passover festival, a commemoration of the advent of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets.

Easter-related Holidays and Festivals

Holy Week

In the Christian liturgical year, the week immediately preceding Easter, beginning with Palm Sunday. Solemn rites are observed commemorating the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Special observances recalling the institution of the EUCHARIST are held on Maundy Thursday; Scripture readings, solemn prayers, and veneration of the cross recall the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday. Holy Saturday commemorates the burial of Christ; midnight vigil services inaugurate the Easter celebration of the resurrection. Holy Week is sometimes called the “Great Week” by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians because it commemorates the great deeds of God for humankind.

Mardi Gras/Carnival

(Fr., “fat Tuesday”), pre-Lenten festival celebrated in Roman Catholic countries and communities. In a strict sense, Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, is celebrated by the French as the last of the three days of Shrovetide and is a time of preparation immediately before Ash Wednesday and the start of the fast of LENT.

Mardi Gras is thus the last opportunity for merrymaking and indulgence in food and drink. In practice, the festival is generally celebrated for one full week before Lent. Mardi Gras is marked by spectacular parades featuring floats, pageants, elaborate costumes, masked balls, and people dancing in the streets.

Mardi Gras originated as one of the series of carnival days held in all Roman Catholic countries between Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, and Ash Wednesday; these carnivals had their origin in pre-Christian spring fertility rites. The most famous modern Mardi Gras festivities are those held in New Orleans, La.; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Nice, France; and Cologne, Germany.

Ash Wednesday

In Christian churches, the first day of the penitential season of Lent, so called from the ceremony of placing ashes on the forehead as a sign of penitence. This custom, probably introduced by Pope Gregory I, has been universal since the Synod of Benevento (1091). In the Roman Catholic church, ashes obtained from burned palm branches of the previous Palm Sunday are blessed before mass on Ash Wednesday. The priest places the blessed ashes on the foreheads of the officiating priests, the clergy, and the congregation, while reciting over each one the following formula: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”


Period of fasting and penitence traditionally observed by Christians in preparation for Easter. The length of the Lenten fast, during which observants eat sparingly, was established in the 4th century as 40 days. In the Eastern churches, where both Saturdays and Sundays are regarded as festival days, the period of Lent is the eight weeks before Easter; in the Western churches, where only Sunday is regarded as a festival, the 40-day period begins on Ash Wednesday and extends, with the omission of Sundays, to the day before Easter. The observance of fasting or other forms of self-denial during Lent varies within Protestant and Anglican churches. These bodies emphasize penitence. The Roman Catholic church has in recent years relaxed its laws on fasting. According to an apostolic constitution issued by Pope Paul VI in February 1966, fasting and abstinence during Lent are obligatory only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Maundy Thursday

or “Holy Thursday”, the Thursday before Easter Sunday, observed by Christians in commemoration of Christ’s Last Supper. The name Maundy is derived from mandatum (Lat., “commandment”), the first word of an anthem sung in the liturgical ceremony on that day. In Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches, the Eucharist is celebrated in an evening liturgy that includes Holy Communion. During the Roman Catholic liturgy, the ceremony of the washing of the feet, or pedilavium, is performed: the celebrant washes the feet of 12 people to commemorate Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet. In England a custom survives of giving alms (called “maundy pennies”) to the poor; this act recalls an earlier practice in which the sovereign washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. In most European countries, the day is known as Holy Thursday.

Good Friday

Friday immediately preceding Easter, celebrated by Christians as the anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion. The name Good Friday is generally believed to be a corruption of God’s Friday. Since the time of the early church, the day has been dedicated to penance, fasting, and prayer.

In the Roman Catholic church, the Good Friday liturgy is composed of three distinct parts: readings and prayers, including the reading of the Passion according to St. John; the veneration of the cross; and a general communion service (formerly called the Mass of the Presanctified), involving the reception of preconsecrated hosts by the priest and faithful.

From the 16th century on, the Good Friday service took place in the morning; in 1955 Pope Pius XII decreed that it be held in the afternoon or evening. As a result, such traditional afternoon devotions as the Tre Ore (Ital., “three hours”), consisting of sermons, meditations, and prayers centering on the three-hour agony of Christ on the cross, were almost entirely discontinued in the Roman Catholic church. In most of Europe, in South America, in Great Britain and many parts of the Commonwealth, and in several states of the U.S., Good Friday is a legal holiday.

Pagan Origins

Easter, a Christian festival, embodies many pre-Christian traditions. The origin of its name is unknown. Scholars, however, accepting the derivation proposed by the 8th-century English scholar St. Bede, believe it probably comes from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, to whom was dedicated a month corresponding to April. Her festival was celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox; traditions associated with the festival survive in the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and in colored easter eggs, originally painted with bright colors to represent the sunlight of spring, and used in Easter-egg rolling contests or given as gifts.

Such festivals, and the stories and legends that explain their origin, were common in ancient religions. A Greek legend tells of the return of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth, from the underworld to the light of day; her return symbolized to the ancient Greeks the resurrection of life in the spring after the desolation of winter. Many ancient peoples shared similar legends. The Phrygians believed that their omnipotent deity went to sleep at the time of the winter solstice, and they performed ceremonies with music and dancing at the spring equinox to awaken him.

The Christian festival of Easter probably embodies a number of converging traditions; most scholars emphasize the original relation of Easter to the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach, from which is derived Pasch, another name for Easter. The early Christians, many of whom were of Jewish origin, were brought up in the Hebrew tradition and regarded Easter as a new feature of the Passover festival, a commemoration of the advent of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets.

Easter symbols

Eastre (or “Ostara”), the Anglo-Saxon Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility was often accompanied by a hare when represented. The fertile nature of rabbits and hares is another symbol of new life and the rebirth that occurs during the spring season.

Also, German settlers in America are said to have brought over the tradition of a bunny named “Oschter Haws” who would visit houses on Easter eve, leaving colored eggs for children. Easter eggs were painted different colors to represent the sunlight of spring. Christians later used eggs to symbolize the rebirth of Christ.

Another Easter tradition is the eating of Hot Cross Buns. These cakes were marked by the Saxons to honor Eastre, the fertility goddess. The crosses on the buns are said to represent the moon’s quarters, while Christians see the cross as a reference to the crucifixtion.

Thank you very much Michelle. She was just helping me out during my busy week, so we could get out a podcast today. I must aplogize for being late this week. At least it is only one day. In the beginning of the podcast was Lauren a listener from La Habra California who was kind enough to record a cool little introduction for us. And now I am very excited to play our very first voice message from the history hotline….

Wow, well thank you very much Christy. It sure is cool to hear from you on the road! Or record your comments and send them in an mp3 file to historypodcast@gmail.com.

Lots going on in the listner appreciation segment this week. Today is civilwarbuffs birthday from the forums so HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

Listner Mark aka The M Train sent in an email asking about other good history podcast. I had been thinking updating the webpage with the history podcast and other podcast that I listen to and Mark finally got me to do it with his request. So go and check out the website for links to six other history related podcast that I listen to.

While I was updating the website I also added the libsyn player, so you can now listen to the podcast straight off the website.

This weeks question to win the book Left to Tell, a heroing story of a young womans struggle to survive the Rwandan Holocost is….

This weeks frapper mappers are:

1.Gavin Lee from London, England

2.Paul Cline from Las Vegas Nevada

3.Becky from Howell, Michigan

4.Morgan from Jacksonville, Florida

5.and Julie from Slickville, Pennsylvania

Thank you all so much for listening. A Special thanks to Laruen and Christy for making guest appearances on the show and a big thank you to Michelle for this weeks hosting. Happy Birthday to Civilwarbuff and a very Happy Easter to all who celebrate it!

Question: Who introduced todays episode of historypodcast?

Answer: Lauren.


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