Thursday, March 25, 2010

The history behind Easter traditions

Lent, Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday: these are all terms heard a great deal at this time of year. But what exactly do they mean and where do they come from? The special dates and traditions that are upheld as the days draw near to Easter Sunday have a long and intriguing history in Christian practice.

Most of the West’s time-honoured Easter traditions began in Europe, where Lent coincides with the beginning of spring. The words ‘Lent’ and ‘Easter’ are both derived from old English words: ‘Lent’ is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word that means ‘springtime’, and ‘Easter’ comes from the word Eastre or Eostre, which was the name given to the Goddess of Spring, who represented dawn and new light. As so frequently occurred, early church leaders adapted pagan traditions to fit in with the newly introduced Christianity. The already existing focus on the new light of the spring season thus came to refer to the spiritual dawn or new light Christ brought into people’s lives when he defeated death by rising from the grave.

Lent, which is forty days long, begins on Ash Wednesday, a day so named because in the Old Testament men and women covered themselves with ash during times of sorrow. The church adopted this practice during Lent as a sign for sorrow over one’s sins. Ash Wednesday thus heralds the start of a period in which men and women traditionally adopt a sombre and prayerful attitude, focusing on self-discipline, self-reflection and partial fasting (and also penance for Catholics). Lent then ends on Easter Sunday.

By the Middle Ages, food restrictions during Lent were a matter of enforcement; no meat, dairy or eggs were allowed, these being thought of as foods that give one pleasure. So the days and weeks leading up to Lent thus became a time when all the rich and fatty foodstuffs in one’s parlour were to be used up before Lenten fasting begins. These days became days of ‘carnival’, a word derived from the Latin for ‘a farewell to meat’. Shrove Tuesday – the time when Christians ‘shrive’ themselves, or confess their sins – is the last day of carnival, and it thus also became a day known to many as Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras in French).

In some areas Fat Tuesday it is also known as Pancake Tuesday. In the English town of Olney women have, for the past five hundred years, met in the town square with hot frying pans and raced one another to the church while flipping pancakes in the air.

In the first century, Lent was only forty hours long, Christians observing the actual period during which Jesus lay dead in the tomb. Lent was then broken at 3am on Easter morning with the church meeting to celebrate. I remember as a young girl in the Anglican Church how we would meet in the dark at 5:30am for an early Easter Sunday service. We would light candles and hold vigil for the ‘light’ of Easter Day. When first light came we would all wildly shake and rattle homemade instruments to celebrate Jesus’ rising from the dead.

The hot cross bun, also popular in the West, was supposedly first baked by an English monk who was moved to compassion when he saw poor, hungry families on the street during Lent. He baked the buns, added a symbolic white cross on the top, and gave it to them, hoping they would not be robbed of the joy of Easter.

The Sunday before Easter Sunday is Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and men and women waved palm fronds at him and also laid them on the ground so as to provide him with a softer path.

The last week of Lent is Holy Week. The first notable day during Holy Week is Maundy Thursday. It was on Maundy Thursday that Jesus sat around the dining table with his disciples and gave them the commandment to “love one another as I have loved you”. The Latin word mandatum, from which comes ‘Maundy’, means ‘commandment’.

The following day, Good Friday, Jesus was crucified. It is a “Good” Friday because he took on himself the punishment that mankind deserves, but it is also known as Black Friday in many parts of Europe because Christians remember the darkness and suffering Christ endured on their behalf.

The day for observing Easter is different every year because in the fourth century church leaders agreed that Easter Day would be every first Sunday after the full moon that follows the Spring Equinox (20 or 21 March).

In the Middle Ages, eggs were given to children and servants on Easter Day, a lovely gift because dairy foods had been denied everyone during Lent. The egg is also an obvious symbol of birth and life. It predates Jesus’ crucifixion as a sign of new life, but early Christians adapted its meaning so that the eggshell represents Christ’s tomb and the emergence of the bird represents his victorious breakout from the tomb. Today the symbolism of the egg remains, but the egg has been turned into a chocolate egg.

Easter Sunday is all about celebration, with Christians rejoicing over Jesus’ resurrection from death. Early Christians used to hold feasts, dance and sing, and play practical jokes on one another, celebrating the ‘final joke’ that Jesus played on the devil when he rose from the grave.

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