Easter is a springtime Christian celebration dedicated to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, three days after his Crucifixion. Easter follows Lent, marking the close of the Holy Week, which comprises Maundy Thursday (dedicated to the Last Supper), Good Friday (the Crucifixion) and Holy Saturday (commemorating the Harrowing of Hell).
But when was Easter first celebrated, and when did Easter eggs, bunnies and eating lamb become associated with the holiday?
Well, the first formal Easter celebration dates back to the 2nd century, but it’s believed that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ would have been commemorated earlier than that. Eggs and bunnies, meanwhile, only emerged as Easter traditions centuries later.
Here’s the story of Easter’s origins and evolution, from the etymology of the word itself to the invention of traditions we still celebrate today.
Why is it called Easter?
In the majority of European countries, the holiday of Easter is named after Passover, the Jewish festival. Hence, in Greece, it’s called Pascha, in France it’s referred to as Paques, and in Italy, Pasqua.
The origins of the English word, Easter, are a little more complicated. Some argue that it is named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, ‘Eostre’. If this were the case, it would suggest that Christians subsumed pagan celebrations into their own springtime holidays. But scholars increasingly reject this theory.
Instead, the word Easter is thought to have derived from the Latin word for dawn, ‘alba’, which became ‘eostarum’ in medieval Germany. Hence, in Germany, Easter is known as Ostern, a parallel to the English term, Easter.
Although the term Easter may not have derived from pagan springtime celebrations, there’s evidence that some ancient pagan traditions may have been adopted into the Christian holiday. Indeed, with the coming of spring, pagan rituals celebrated birth, fertility and growth, parallels of which can be seen in modern Christian celebrations of Jesus’ Resurrection.
When is Easter?
At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, representatives of Christendom, under the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, decided that Easter would occur annually on the Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. As such, the exact date of Easter changes each year.
Easter dates 2022-2027:
2022: 17 April
2023: 9 April
2024: 31 March
2025: 20 April
2026: 5 April
2027: 28 March
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, however, a different annual calendar is used, so Easter generally occurs later than Roman Catholic and Protestant celebrations.
The origins of Easter traditions
Despite its ancient origins, modern Easter celebrations now encompass an array of different medieval, early modern and Victorian Easter traditions.
Easter vigils have been held since ancient times, gaining widespread popularity in the 4th century. They remain a staple of Easter celebrations in Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions to this day.
Historically, Easter vigils celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the second coming. Roman Catholic ceremonies would involve lighting candles to represent the emergence of light from the dark, paralleling Resurrection after the Crucifixion. Baptisms were also held and many considered them a main feature of Easter vigils.
In ancient times, Christians would lay lamb meat beneath the church altar for it to be blessed. They would then eat it as part of Easter celebrations, and it continues to be a staple Easter tradition for many today.
Fasting for lent
The tradition of the Lent fast ending on Easter dates back to the 12th century. Since then, the fast has been broken on Easter with foodstuffs such as bread, eggs and meats.
In the medieval era, Christians would decorate eggs and eat them on Easter to celebrate the end of the Lenten fast; eggs couldn’t be eaten during the Holy Week.
The first instance of eggs being decorated dates to the 13th century. In Christian symbolism, eggs represent new life, paralleling the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The White House Easter egg roll
In 1878, US President Rutherford B. Hayes and First Lady Lucy Hayes sponsored a public Easter egg roll on the grounds of the White House. It’s thought to have been the first annual egg roll of its kind, an event that involved children and parents rolling eggs along the White House lawn. The tradition has endured into the 21st century.
The Easter bunny
Bunnies or rabbits have been associated with Easter since around the 17th or 18th centuries; a 1722 book by Georg Franck von Franckenau alludes to the “Easter hare”. But the Easter bunny only became a staple of the holiday in the 19th century, fuelled by the rise of Victorian holiday cards.
It was said that a bunny would decorate, hide, and possibly even lay, decorated eggs each Easter. Not all regions in early modern Europe associated the tradition with a rabbit, though: in parts of Germany, it was a fox, while Switzerland recognised the Easter cuckoo.