Celebrating religion - Eastertide: the Easter season around the world

Easter is an important time of recognition and celebration in many different religions. Around the world, people observe this holiday in various forms and on a range of dates as well. Due to the differences in the Western calendar used by the Catholic and Protestant Churches and the Eastern Orthodox calendar, the celebrations are often marked separately.

This year, in 2010, the calendars will align and Easter will be recognized on the same date, April 4. This is quite unusual since the two branches of Christianity have very different methods for calculating the correct date for Easter. There are only a few years each century when the Easter dates match like this so Easter is certainly extra special this year.

If you've grown up celebrating Easter with your family, your experiences can vary quite a bit. You may have fasted for Lent, attended mass and confessed your sins. Or you may have woken up to a new bike, a stuffed rabbit and a basket of chocolate.

Either way, you may need a refresher on the reason we celebrate Easter each year. Why is this time in history significant? What faiths come together to recognize this occasion? How's it celebrated around the world? It depends on whom you ask.

According to Christian scripture, on the third day after his crucifixion, Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Christians celebrate his resurrection on Easter Sunday. The New Testament teaches that the resurrection of Jesus is a foundation of the Christian faith. Easter also marks the end of Lent, a period of preparation for commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus that begins on Ash Wednesday.

Lent is a time of prayer, penitence and self-denial that lasts for approximately 40 days (it varies depending on denomination). Traditionally, people who are observing Lent will “give up” a favourite treat or sin (like eating chocolate or smoking cigarettes) during this time to represent their strength against temptation. This period is meant to represent the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness, prior to starting his public ministry. In this time he is believed to have endured the temptation of Satan.

The week leading up to Easter is known as Holy Week and it is recognized as a very special time for Christians. The Sunday before Easter is called Palm Sunday and the three days leading up to Easter Sunday are Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. These three days are sometimes referred to as the Easter Triduum, which is Latin for “Three Days.”

It is taught that on Good Friday, Jesus was crucified and his body was taken down from the cross and laid to rest in a cave. A large rock was placed at the entrance to the cave to stop anyone from trying to steal his body. On the following Sunday, it is believed that some women visited the grave and found that the large stone had been moved and the tomb was empty! Later that day, Jesus was seen alive and his followers realized that God had raised Jesus from the dead.

Though Easter is a Christian celebration, its practices embody many pre-Christian traditions. Scholars believe that the name Easter actually comes from the Anglo-Saxon name of the Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility Eastre. Her festival was celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox and included egg painting and the image of an Easter rabbit, which is often used as a symbol of fertility.

Even the theme of resurrection precedes the crucifixion of Christ. A Greek legend tells of the return of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the Earth who returned from the underworld to the light of day. Her return is said to symbolize the resurrection of life in the spring after the desolation of winter.

Easter is also linked to the Jewish celebration of Passover. The two holidays share symbolism and occur at a similar time of year. This year, Passover begins on March 26 and will continue until April 6. The first two days of Passover are observed as non-working holidays observed with prayer and time with family.

During the following four days, referred to as Chol Hamoed, work is allowed but with limitations. The final two days are again non-working days. In recognizing Passover, it is important to know that the Jewish calendar recognizes holidays as beginning at sundown the night before the date. This means that Passover actually begins on March 25 at sundown. Observances of holidays conclude at nightfall.

Passover recognizes the legend of Exodus; the heartbreaking story of the Ten Plagues. The story tells of Ten Plagues, each inflicted by God upon the Egyptian people to force the Pharaoh to free his Hebrew slaves. It took Ten Plagues, each increasingly horrible and destructive before he released the Hebrew people. The plagues were all horrendous, but the final one was set to kill all of the firstborn in all of Egypt. The Plague reached the Pharaoh's firstborn as well as many children and adults living in the villages and even firstborn animals.

The Hebrews were told to mark their doorposts with the blood of a spring lamb and upon seeing the blood the Lord would pass over their houses. It is believed, that the Hebrews fled so quickly when the Pharaoh finally freed them that they could not wait for their bread to rise. In remembrance, for the extent of Passover no leavened bread is eaten. This time is often called “The Festival of Unleavened Bread.” Matzo, bread that is flat and unrisen is the primary emblem of the holiday.

Spring is a time of change, uncovering of the Earth after a cold winter. Replenishment and a rebirth of the land we live on. It is beautiful how so many faiths parallel this renewal.

Happy Spring!