Monday, March 25, 2024

Easter FAQ - A Guide for Newcomers


I work with people from around the world (generally via videoconference). Those who are overseas, or only recently moved here, are often unfamiliar with American traditions. For example, when I joined a meeting early and was chatting with a native-born colleague about Groundhog Day, a foreign-born colleague joined a little late and struggled to come up to speed. Flummoxed by phrases like “Punxsutawney Phil,” he asked, “Are you guys talking about football?”

With Easter Sunday coming up, I figured I’d try to provide a handy guide, in the time-honored format of Frequently Asked Questions, for anyone similarly mystified by this admittedly rather complicated holiday.

(No, I’m not really an Easter expert, but maybe it’s better that way; I’ll be less inclined to overestimate how much people already know.)

Easter Sunday Frequently Asked Questions

What is Easter all about?

Easter is a fundamentally a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, though non-Christians in the West often celebrate it as a basic festival, more in the spirit of springtime, a seasonal renewal. In America, as with so many traditions, it can seem like mainly an excuse to eat food that is bad for us.

When is Easter celebrated?

Easter is always on a Sunday, but where the specific date is concerned things get complicated. The holiday takes place anywhere between late March and late April, based on a complex algorithm that people have bickered about for hundreds of years. To this day, different Christian denominations celebrate it on different days. According to Wikipedia, the West celebrates Easter “on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, which is the first full moon on or after 21 March (a fixed approximation of the March equinox).” So this year in America, it’s this coming Sunday, March 31. That said, the Greek Orthodox church won’t celebrate it until May 5. So, if you’re late getting a card in the mail, you’ve got your excuse!

Wait a second – if Jesus was resurrected on a specific day, why does the commemoration date depend on moon cycles?

I have always assumed this moon-phase-after-equinox thing was an attempt to move in on the pagans’ action and have the holiday compete with their traditional seasonal celebrations (like how Christmas is conveniently close to the Winter solstice, and my birthday is very close to the Summer solstice). (Yes, that last bit was a joke.) But my theory doesn’t appear to be correct; Wikipedia (which has a very long article about the date of Easter) declares, “The complexity of the algorithm arises because of the desire to associate the date of Easter with the date of the Jewish feast of Passover which, Christians believe, is when Jesus was crucified.” I like that: “the desire.” Whose desire? They don’t say. I don’t suspect very many people actually care how Easter relates to Passover, much less to any astronomical matters. It’s not like if we were out for a night walk anyone would ever say, “Wait a second, how can it be Easter tomorrow? Look at the moon! Does that look like a last quarter moon to you?!”

How is Easter celebrated?

Many Catholics observe various days during Holy Week (the week before Easter), leading up to Good Friday (celebrating the death by crucifixion of Jesus and no, I have no idea why it’s called “Good” Friday). On the night before Easter, some attend an all-night vigil, as I did once at a Greek Orthodox church as the guest of a friend. I had to stand the whole time because, as a relative heathen, I didn’t want to take up one of the coveted seats in the pews. I had been instructed by my friend that the vigil would end in the morning with special music and then the Paschal greeting, aka Easter Acclamation, whereby everybody would turn to his or her neighbor and say, “Christ is risen!” to which the traditional response is, “He is risen indeed!” At some point I forgot how I was supposed to respond, and sweated over it the rest of the night … I had one line to deliver—was I really gonna flub it? As the sleep deprivation got to me, I started worrying that I’d blurt out something like, “Amen, of course, yes,” or “Word up,” or “And also with you.” In the event, I didn’t actually choke … I probably took a cue from everyone else, and/or my response was indistinct among the hundreds of people talking at once.

Religious traditions aside, almost everyone tends to eat chocolate eggs and jelly beans on Easter, and to dye hard boiled eggs, and to have a special dinner, often something really tasty like lamb. And there’s lots of talk about, and pictorial representations of, the Easter Bunny, who’s kind of like a furry animal Santa.

What’s up with the eggs? Is that something Jesus was into?

If you really want to go down a rabbit hole (sorry, couldn’t resist), try googling “did Jesus like eggs.” One article says definitely yes, but I couldn’t get any details due to a paywall. A PETA site says Jesus certainly didn’t eat eggs and you shouldn’t either. Mostly the results are dead ends. I think it’s fair to conclude that the Easter egg has more to do with basic symbolism. Wikipedia says that in the Christian tradition, the eggs “symbolize the empty tomb of Jesus.” The Encyclopedia Britannica says that early Christians repurposed some existing symbolism from pagans who “viewed eggs as a symbol of the regeneration that comes with springtime.”

Does the Easter Bunny actually lay the Easter eggs? In other words, is she of the special order of mammals called monotremes, like the platypus?

I had to do a little research on this one. I can find no evidence that the Easter Bunny actually lays these eggs (even according to the folklore and modern traditions), nor that the Easter Bunny is even female. According to Wikipedia, “In ancient times, it was widely believed (as by Pliny, Plutarch, Philostratus, and Aelian) that the hare was a hermaphrodite.” Can a hermaphrodite lay eggs? Well, sort of, but more in the sense of sperm + eggs, not the kind of egg that has a shell and thus can represent an empty tomb.

Meanwhile, both Wikepedia and Britannica mention that eating eggs is forbidden during the Lenten period before Easter, but nobody tells the hens to stop laying, so the ensuing glut is part of why eggs figure in to Easter. So I think it’s fair to say these Easter eggs are chicken eggs, not rabbit eggs. In my family’s case, my kids were never nosy enough to ask where the Easter Bunny gets the eggs, so I didn’t have to make anything up. Perhaps that’s unfortunate; I’d have liked to work monotremic mammals into our family lore.

Why are the Easter eggs dyed?

According to Wikipedia, eggs were originally dyed red to symbolize “the blood of Christ, shed at his crucifixion.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps other colors were brought in to make the holiday more pleasant. Can you imagine how the notions of bloodshed + egg + Easter Bunny might get jumbled up in a young child’s imagination in alarming ways?

Easter egg hunts seem to be a big part of the tradition. Who (supposedly) hides the eggs?

I think the folklore around who hides the eggs will naturally vary from family to family. My wife and I didn’t like the idea of an outdoor Easter egg hunt, for reasons of hygiene, but also couldn’t be bothered to create any mythology around the Easter Bunny sliding down the chimney or some other explanation for how he or she would get in to the house, which we lock up like a citadel. Plus, the hunt was always for the eggs that the kids themselves had dyed, so to pretend the Easter Bunny hid them would have been a real stretch. So my wife and I were candid about being the hiders of the eggs.

According to this article, quoting Lizette Larson-Miller, a professor with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, “We know that Martin Luther had Easter egg hunts where the men hid the eggs for the women and children and it probably has this connection back to this idea of eggs being the tomb.” I don’t think this aspect of the Easter tradition has survived to modern times.

My kids ultimately became too competitive around the Easter egg hunts, which took most of the fun out of it, so my wife and I turned the tables and had the kids hide the eggs for us. This became a real challenge because their hiding places were so devious, some eggs wouldn’t turn up for several weeks.

That photo at the top of this post is so weird. Is it typical of the holiday?

It’s part of an entire series of strange photos my dad took of my brothers and me with our eggs one year. We never saw the photos until decades later, after his death, because he always shot slide film and almost never did slide shows, owing to his clunky projector and his workaholism. Going through his stuff (so I could sell his house), I found boxes and boxes of slides, I mean like thousands, with this series among them. Check out this choice shot:

That kid looks really stressed. What’s going on there?

My brothers and I weren’t used to our dad paying much attention to us, and couldn’t figure out the odd posing of these photos. I suspect this kid, who is either Bryan or Geoff, was just kind of flummoxed, like “Who is this weird dad guy?” and/or was afraid of letting the old man down by not posing properly.

Why do those eggs say ‘Mommy Day’ on them? Is that part of Easter?

No, mommies are not celebrated as part of Easter; modern cultures have Mother’s Day for that. Who knows what this kid was thinking. Perhaps he was somehow conflating the two holidays due to sheer ignorance. It’s natural he wouldn’t have used the word “Mother” because we were afraid of it … we could only say “Mommy.” We were even more afraid of the word “Father” and could only say “Daddy.” I once said “Dad” because I was about to get spanked for a childish infraction and was trying to be as casual as possible so I said, “Sorry, Dad,” which seemed to fan the flames of his anger such that it was one of the worst spankings I ever had. To make matters worse, when my brothers later mocked me about the spanking (which mocking went on for many weeks), their chorus was always “Sorry, Dad.” Thus, nobody said “Dad” for at least ten more years. But I realize I’m getting way off into the weeds here. I want to emphasize that our family was not normal and our eggs and the way we’ve posed with them are not representative of any Easter tradition.

How did the Easter holiday come to incorporate candy instead of just chicken eggs and a big feast?

According to Wikipedia, “as many people give up sweets as their Lenten sacrifice, individuals enjoy them at Easter.” There’s probably some truth to this, but since a majority of Americans don’t observe Lent, this part of the observance is probably related more to: hey, candy! Yum!

As with most American traditions, the theme of excess is well represented by our Easter holiday. The number of candies and their size have increased significantly in my lifetime. No longer are we limited to egg-shaped chocolates; now we have bunny-shaped chocolates that one day will probably grow to be life-sized. In America, we have a word for this indulgence. We call it: freedom.

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