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Easter In Christianity, feast celebrating the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. The English name Easter was explained by St. Bede the Venerable as coming from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, who was associated with the season of new birth. Some modern scholars, however, contend that St. Bede misread the Anglo-Saxon word for spring, thinking it was an ancient pagan goddess. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on the day of the vernal equinox (21 March) or on any of the next 28 days. Easter Day cannot be earlier than 22 March or later than 25 April. The date for Easter was fixed by the Council of Nicaea in 325, though various Christian groups still celebrate it at different times. Until the Roman church made headway in Britain during the Middle Ages, the Celtic church celebrated Easter at a time different from that of the Roman observance. Numerous battles were fought over the proper date, but eventually the stronger Roman position (it was backed by the pope and the rest of Western Christendom) won out. Medieval documents often mention Easter as the beginning of the new year, especially in France, where it was so until 1563. At Easter time the Roman emperors, starting with Valentinian in 367, released nondangerous criminals from prison. This custom was followed by medieval popes, emperors, and kings for centuries. The preparation for Easter season, beginning on Ash Wednesday and continuing for a week after Easter Day, was filled with pagan customs that had been revised in the light of Christianity. Germanic nations, for example, set bonfires in spring. This custom was frowned on by the Church, which tried to suppress it. But when Irish monks in the sixth and seventh centuries came to Germany, they brought their
earlier pagan rites and would bless bonfires outside the church building on Holy Saturday. The custom spread to France, and eventually it was incorporated into the Easter liturgy of Rome in the ninth century. Even today the blessing of the new fire is part of the Vigil of Easter. It was a custom during Easter celebration in the Middle Ages to raise the Host, or the cross, from the shrine of the sepulcher during the night of Holy Saturday. A figure of the dead Christ was also kept in the church from Holy Thursday until Holy Saturday, and the faithful would sit with it as at a wake. Medieval celebrations of Easter began at dawn. According to one old legend, the sun dances on Easter morning or makes three jumps at the moment of its rising in honor of Christ’s Resurrection. The rays of light penetrating the clouds were believed to be angels dancing for joy. Part of the medieval Easter rites consisted of the sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes (Praise to the Paschal Victim), written by Wipo, a priest who about 1030 was court chaplain of the emperor Conrad. The poem, which was placed in the Latin Mass for Easter, is believed to have been the inspiration for miracle plays that developed from the 10th century on. (However, scholars still debate the origin of medieval drama.) In time plays dealing with Christmas, Epiphany, and other Christian feasts were written. Some Easter folk traditions that have survived today are the Easter egg, rabbit, and lamb. During medieval times it was a tradition to give eggs at Easter to servants. King Edward I of England had 450 eggs boiled before Easter and dyed or covered with gold leaf. He then gave them to members of the royal household on Easter day. Eating of eggs was forbidden during Lent but allowed again on Easter Day. The egg was an earlier pagan symbol of rebirth and was presented at the spring equinox, the beginning of the pagan new year. The Easter rabbit is first mentioned in a German book of 1572 and also was a pagan fertility symbol. The Easter lamb goes back
to the Middle Ages; the lamb, holding a flag with a red cross on a white field, represented the resurrected Christ. A prayer for blessing lambs can be traced to the seventh century in Italy. In the ninth century Rome adopted the prayer, and a roasted lamb was part of the pope’s dinner for Easter. It was believed lucky to meet a lamb during Easter time because the devil could assume any animal shape but one, the lamb, for the lamb was a symbol of Christ. Medieval Easter week was one long celebration. One Spanish missal of the ninth century has Mass texts for three masses each day of the Easter Octave. Gradually, however, the church reduced the celebration to three days. Since many people were baptized on Holy Saturday, they wore new white garments, from which we still have the custom of new clothes for Easter. Monday and Tuesday of Easter week in northern countries were the traditional days of “drenching” and “switching,” customs based on pagan fertility rites. The drenching custom consisted of the boys dousing the girls with buckets or bottles of water. In the switching ceremony the boys switched the women with pussy willow or leaved branches.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante

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