For at least 2.2 billion people, Easter is a day of remembrance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is considered to be the biggest Christian holiday – even more widely celebrated than Christmas. Even atheists and agnostics get into the swing of things through the Easter Bunny and chocolate eggs.
While Easter is a religious holiday, many of the symbols associated with it come from pagan origins. Prior to Christianity, many ancient religions had myths and legends about the death and rebirth of gods and goddesses. Celebrations of these gods usually occurred in the spring in the Northern Hemisphere, coinciding with the March/April celebration of Easter.
If you’ve ever wondered why the date of Easter changes from year to year, it’s partly this pagan-Christian crossover to blame. Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the full moon following a spring equinox. As a result of the fact that Orthodox Christianity still uses the Julian calendar, the date of the Orthodox Easter differs by a few weeks from the more common Gregorian calendar.
The Julian Calendar was introduced in 46 BC by Julius Caesar and was developed in consultation with the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes. It is believed to have been designed to approximate the tropical year. It has a regular year of 365 days divided into 12 months, and a leap day is added to February every four years. Hence, the Julian Calendar's year is on average 365¼ days long.
The Gregorian Calendar was first introduced by Pope Gregory XIII - which is how the calendar got its name. While the Julian calendar assumes a full year is 365.25 days, it is actually 11 minutes less, and the Gregorian calendar was able to make up for this 11 minute difference by not making years divisible by 100 to be a leap year. As a result most countries today use the Gregorian calendar.
After Easter became established as a Christian holiday, the traditions and symbols of the pagans remained. Even the name of the holiday Easter is derived from Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess associated with spring and fertility.
While the egg symbolism is also linked to new life, the Easter bunny started as a Germanic tradition as the rabbit was a symbol of fertility. According to the tradition, an egg-laying rabbit called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws” would lay colourful eggs in nests made by children. These symbols were subsequently been adopted by early Christians, who now see eggs as representing Christ’s emergence from the tomb and resurrection.
In today’s multi-cultural and multi-denominational world, Easter has slowly evolved into a holiday that sees chocolate eggs selling by the billions worldwide. However, for those that are Christians, it remains the oldest and most important celebration of their faith.
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