What is celebrated at Easter: the meaning and origins of the holiday

TO Easter, we all know it well, we eat the dove and look for surprises inside the chocolate eggs. The festival, however, as a Christian religious occasion was born to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred, according to the Gospels, three days after his death on the cross. Christian Easter originates from Passover Jewishwhich celebrates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, but since the first centuries of Christianity has taken on a different meaning. Originally also the date of the Christian anniversary it was linked to that of the Jewish Passover, but in the 4th century the Council of Nicaea decided to calculate the date based on a different principle, which is still followed today. The date, being linked to the lunar cycles, it changes every year. In 2024 Easter falls on Sunday 31 March.

Jewish Passover: the origins of the holiday

Christian Easter has its roots in the Jewish one, known as Passovercelebrates the escape of the Jews from Egypt. The biblical book of Exodus tells that the Jewish people, who lived in slavery in Egypt, fled under the leadership of Moses and were able to cross the Red Sea, which separates Egyptian territory from Palestine, because God divided the waters. Today historians believe that the exodus never took place, at least not in the form narrated by the Bible, but the event is equally great importance in Judaism.

The exodus of the Jews in a 1907 print
The exodus of the Jews in a 1907 print

Christian Easter: the meaning of the holiday for Christianity

Christianity, as we know, was born in the 1st century AD as “subset” of Judaism, from which it separated over the years, becoming a religion in its own right. Originally, Christians observed numerous precepts of the Jewish religion, but they rejected some (for example, the practice of circumcision) and modified others. This was the case at Easter. From the middle of the 2nd century AD. C., the Christian communities assigned the meaning of to the anniversary celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and no more than the liberation from slavery in Egypt.

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The celebration moved away from the Jewish one also for other meanings. For Christians, Jesus is the Messiah, that is, the man sent by God to Earth to redeem the human race. The Jews, however, believe that the Messiah has not yet arrived. Therefore, while Jewish Easter has the meaning of waiting for the Messiah, in Christianity it celebrates the exact opposite, that is, his arrival on Earth. Easter has been celebrated since the 2nd century AD established throughout the Christian world and it has become the most important occasion of the liturgical year together with Christmas.

The Resurrection of Raphael
The Resurrection of Raphael

How is the date of Easter calculated and why does it change every year?

This year Easter falls on Sunday 31 March but the date is not fixed: it always falls in the same period, but not on the same day of the month (in terms of number). To understand the reasons for this peculiarity we must consider that originally the date of Christian Easter was connected to that of Jewish Easter, which begins at sunset on the day 14th of the month of Nisan and ends on the 15th. The Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar: calculates the passage of time through the phases of the Moon, but, since twelve lunar months last 354-355 days, to adapt the calendar to the solar year, it adds an “extra” month every three years. Consequently, the days of the Jewish calendar do not coincide perfectly with those of the solar calendars (which measure the passage of time based on the revolution of the Earth around the Sun), like ours. Gregorian calendarbut they always fall in the same period.

A Jewish calendar from the years 1840-41 (credits LGLou)
A Jewish calendar from the years 1840–41 (credits: LGLou)

Originally Christian Easter was celebrated on Sunday following the 14th of Nisan, but the date was a matter of controversy. In the 325 The Council of Nicaea he decided to separate the date of Christian Easter from the Jewish one, but continued to calculate it based on the lunar cycles. The Council established the principle, still in force, according to which Easter is celebrated in first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21st (approximate date of the spring equinox). Easter, therefore, always falls between March 22nd and April 25th.

Easter traditions: eggs and dove

Numerous food traditions are associated with Easter. The most widespread in the world is that ofchocolate egg, which derives from the fact that the egg, due to the fact that it contains life inside, is considered a symbol of resurrection. Only Italian, however, is the tradition of Easter cake, invented in the 1930s by Motta to create an Easter “counterpart” to panettone, using the same ingredients and the same machinery. The shape of the dove was chosen because, representing purity and peace, it is one of the symbols of Easter. For what concern Easter bunnyhowever, we must go back to the Anglo-Saxon deity of spring Ēoster (the origin of the English word Easter), associated for reasons of fertility and prolificacy with rabbits and hares.

Jewish Encyclopedia, Passover Catholic Encyclopedia, Easter, Enrico Cattaneo, The liturgical celebration of Easter in the ancient Church, in “La Civiltà Cattolica”, April 2021