Easter is not just bunnies and eggs. Learn about Easter Sunday, Easter bonnets, Easter baskets and why people pick pussy willows in Russia and England.
Although taken as a given, one question that is rarely asked, but should be, is why Easter has to fall on a Sunday. In 325 AD, the council of Nice issued an edict that read, in pertinent part, "Easter was to fall upon the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the Vernal Equinox; and if said full moon fell on a Sunday, the Easter should be the Sunday after."
The Easter celebration was coordinated with older, pre-Christian celebrations of spring. The direct relationship to Sunday as the day sacred to the Sun, the ultimate symbol of life, is obvious; yet the subtle connections to the earlier celebrations of the time of planting and the Moon are of equal importance in determining the day of the Easter celebration.
The Easter basket originates from the ancient Catholic custom of taking the food for Easter dinner to mass to be blessed. This, too, mirrored the even more ancient ritual of bringing the first crops and seedlings to the temple to insure a good growing season.
This practice, combined with the "rabbit's nest" awaited by the Pennsylvania Dutch has evolved in the brightly colored containers filled with sweets, toys and the like left for children on Easter morning by that omnipotent hare.
The timing of the use of bells at Easter comes from France and Italy. While the gentle pealing of these huge instruments can be heard throughout the year, their songs fall silent on Maundy Thursday—the Thursday before Easter—not to be heard again until Easter Sunday, thus marking the resurrection.
This Easter tradition, too, has an older origin. In many ancient belief systems the period before an equinox or solstice was a time of reflection on the past seasons. This period of silence would then be marked by a joyous celebration of light and sound that told all that the darkness had fled and that new life was coming back into the world.
Other Easter Traditions
The cross and the lily are both Christian symbols relating to the religious significance of the season and the renewal of faith. Similarly, the lamb has a religious basis, both in Christianity (Christ as the Good Shepherd) and in Judaism (the Paschal Lamb). The view of a lamb as a symbol of new life is the foundation for both religious images.
The Easter bonnet and the wearing of new clothes on Easter Sunday are fairly recent additions to Easter traditions. While imitating the more ancient view that the new clothes and colors symbolized the end of winter, new life and renewal, the actual practice of strolling to Church in your "Sunday Best" was not prevalent until the end of the nineteenth century.
A unique Easter tradition founded primarily in England and Russia is the picking of pussy willows. As an ancient symbol that spring had finally arrived, it was viewed as good luck to be tapped on the shoulder by a branch of these soft blooms by a neighbor or loved one.
Though identified in modern times as a Christian Holy Day, Easter, the ancient celebration of spring, has roots far deeper than any one belief or culture. It reminds us that there is always a chance to plant our dreams anew; that the cold of winter will pass; and, that in the course of humankind, you can always plant again.