In the United States, Easter is a holiday that falls into its own category.
For Christians, Easter is arguably the most important church observance. There also are those who simply like some of the Easter traditions, like brunches or egg hunts, but don’t consider themselves religious.
Of course, religious holidays have their interpretations in popular culture, with Christmas being chief among them. However, Easter is a distinctly Christian holiday with a scriptural basis that cannot be easily obscured.
That is, in part, because Christians recall the ancient narrative of Holy Week each year, as laid out in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus made his grand entrance into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!”
The next day, he “cleansed” the temple of money-changers.
Holy Tuesday began with Jesus back at the temple, where religious leaders tried to entrap and arrest him. Instead, he persevered and left with his disciples for the Mount of Olives.
The focus shifted from Jesus on Spy Wednesday, zeroing in on Judas plotting with the rabbinical court to betray Jesus.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus and the disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover together. That is where he revealed what is to come in the next few days. He also instituted the practice of the Last Supper.
The events of Good Friday mark Jesus’ trial, Crucifixion, death and entombment.
The day after, his body lay in its guarded tomb. When the Sabbath ended at sundown, Jesus was prepared for burial, with ceremonial spices by Nicodemus.
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These significant and sacred Holy Week milestones and Easter itself don’t easily lend themselves to secularization. That narrative, so diligently tracked in each Gospel, ensures that Easter resists extreme commercialism, wrote Father James Martin in a Slate column, “Happy Crossman!”
“So what enables Easter to maintain its religious purity and not devolve into the consumerist nightmare that is Christmas?” the Jesuit priest asks. “Well, for one thing, it’s hard to make a palatable consumerist holiday out of Easter when its backstory is, at least in part, so gruesome. Christmas is cuddly. Easter, despite the bunnies, is not.”
As I noted in a previous “On Faith,” the elements of Easter we believe to be strictly secular concoctions were actually derived from the pagan beliefs.
In 325, Emperor Constantine I convened the council in Nicaea. Part of his goal for the gathering was to ensure Christianity was protected and preferred throughout his empire. This work likely included ideas and plans to link key pagan festivals with Christian themes and celebrations.
Such was the case with the Passover, a Jewish holiday. During Constantine’s time, Christians observed the death and resurrection of Jesus during Passover, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
The Nicene Council consciously moved commemoration of Jesus’ death and Resurrection so it fell on the first Sunday after a full moon following the vernal equinox. This ensured that it wouldn’t coincide with Passover — and positioned it during important pagan holidays.
Giving the holiday a name that hearkened to pagan roots didn’t hurt, either. “Easter” derives from “Eostre” or “Ostara,” a goddess revered in many early religions throughout the region now known as Europe.
As a fertility goddess, Eostre’s festival time ushered in spring. She’s also the source of “Easter Bunny” imagery. Teutonic legend notes that Eostre passed through the forest on a winter morning. There, she found a bird dying from cold and hunger. She turned the bird into a hare, giving it warm fur, the ability better to forage. It also retained its egg-laying ability.
When spring came, the hare left eggs to show Eostre its gratitude. This hare became Eostre’s sacred animal.
So while some symbols associated with Easter aren’t featured in the scriptural references to the what we call Holy Week, they are religious symbols early Christians incorporated into holiday celebrations.