5 Things You Didn't Know About Easter

04/01/2015 11:49 am ET

For Christians, Easter is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ -- and arguably the most important date on the religious calendar. Easter marks the end of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and reflection. The day holds the promise of victory over death, a new life and the forgiveness of sins.

The first recorded observance of Easter happened in the second century, though it is likely that Christians were celebrating the resurrection much earlier than that. Today, the holy day has inspired a wide variety of traditions -- from Sweden’s trick-or-treating Easter witches to Venezuela’s tradition of burning effigies of Judas.

Here are five little-known facts about the Easter holiday.

  • 1 There’s more than one theory about where Easter got its name.
    The word Easter has been linked to Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and new life. Other scholars trace the name of the holiday to the Latin phrase “hebdomada alba,” which means “white week.” According to tradition, new Christians were baptized into the faith on Easter while wearing white clothes. The phrase evolved into “eostarum” in Old High German, becoming “Ostern” in modern German and “Easter” in English.

    But in many other languages, the word for Easter is still deeply tied to Passover, the festival that celebrates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Jesus was crucified soon after he arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast.

    The Orthodox Church calls Easter “Pascha.” In French, the holiday is known as “Pâques.” In Spanish, it is “Pascua,” and in Dutch, “Pasen.”
  • 2 Easter has always been tied to the moon.
    Since the Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles, Passover falls on 14 Nisan, the 14th day of the first full moon of spring. Christians in Asia Minor used to remember the crucifixion on the 14 Nisan, and celebrate the resurrection on 16 Nisan. But this meant that Easter could fall on any day of the week. On the other hand, Christians in the West celebrated Easter on the first Sunday after 14 Nisan.

    In 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine I gathered bishops from around his empire at the Council of Nicaea to hammer out a solution to this and other debates raging in the early church. The council decided that Easter would be observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.
  • 3 Easter is the reason why we use the Gregorian calendar.
    By the 16th century, scholars had realized that the Roman Empire’s Julian calendar was out of sync with the solar year -- and that Easter was falling further away from the spring equinox. In an effort to close the gap, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar. But because of old religious rivalries, Protestants in Europe were dead set against the change. It wasn’t until 1752 that England adopted the Gregorian calendar. On that day, the country skipped forward 11 days overnight, going from Wednesday, September 2, to Thursday, September 14. The Gregorian calendar is still the most widely used civil calendar today.

    Eastern Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar to calculate religious holidays. As a result, while most of the Western world will celebrate Easter on April 5 this year, Orthodox churches are celebrating on April 12.
  • 4 The Pilgrims despised Easter celebrations.
    Christianity in the early New England colonies was very different from Christianity in America today. The Puritans scorned religious holidays like Easter and Christmas, claiming they had pagan roots and lacked a scriptural basis. In fact, the Puritans flat-out outlawed Christmas celebrations in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1659 to 1681, slapping rule-breakers with a then-hefty fine of five shillings.

    Some Christian denominations are still wary of religious holidays. Jehovah’s Witnesses and many Pentecostal churches, for example, still discourage their members from celebrating Easter.
  • 5 The Easter Bunny barely scratches the surface of this holiday's traditions.
    When Easter swings around in America, there’s no escaping the Easter Bunny and his colorful basket of eggs. But across the world, Christians have developed many interesting ways of marking the holiday. In Sweden, young girls dress up as Easter Witches and travel from house to house looking for treats. In some parts of Latin America and Greece, Christians burn effigies of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. In Venezuela last year, some protesters used the holiday to burn an effigy of their president, Nicolas Maduro. Bermudan Christians fly brightly colored kites on Good Friday to represent Christ’s ascension to heaven.

    In Spain, some Christians don cloaks and pointed hoods to participate in eerie night-time processions. The parades are organized by local religious brotherhoods. The participants -- called penitents, or sinners -- carry crucifixes and religious icons through the streets to act out the Easter story. According to centuries-old tradition, the penitents wear capirotes, or tall pointed hats, so that their neighbors don't know the identity of the sinner behind the mask.

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