Easter is a Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, one of the foundations upon which the Christian religions are built. Easter is not fixed to a specific day; it falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following March 21st. Easter is the oldest Christian holiday.
While the Easter holiday has high religious significance to the Christian faith, many Easter traditions and symbols have roots in pagan celebrations. It is believed that the word “Easter” originated from the name of the pagan goddess, Eostre (or Ostara). Eostre was the Anglo-Saxon goddess symbolizing springtime, the hare and the egg. The festival of Eostre was celebrated on the vernal equinox, when there are equal periods of light and darkness.
Easter is also related with the Jewish Passover. The Jewish Passover under Moses commemorates Israel's deliverance from 300 years of bondage in Egypt.
Easter celebrations were not popular among the early American settlers. Puritans felt Easter celebrations were too non-Christian. It was not until the Civil War that Easter began to become as popular in the States as in Europe.
Today, Christians begin celebrating Easter 40 days prior to Easter Sunday with Lent; 40 days of fasting, prayer and penance. The final week is referred to as Holy Week, with Holy Thursday commemorating the Last Supper. Good Friday commemorates Jesus' crucifixion and death. Easter Sunday celebrates the resurrection of Jesus.
Western Christians celebrate Lent prior to Easter beginning on Ash Wednesday. Palm Sunday starts off Holy Week, which ends on Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday is the Sunday prior to Easter, commemorating Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem when followers greeted him by laying palm leaves across the road. Many churches start their Easter observance during the late hours the day before Easter Sunday, on Holy Saturday, with a service refereed to as Easter Vigil.
Eastern Orthodox Christians begin their Easter rituals with Great Lent, starting on Clean Monday 40 days before Easter Sunday, (not including Sundays). The final week of Great Lent is called Palm Week, ending with Lazarus Saturday the day before Palm Sunday.
Within all Christian denominations there are Easter traditions with roots in pagan or non-religious Spring celebrations, including Easter eggs, bunnies, and egg decorating and rolling.
Eggs have long symbolized birth and fertility in many pagan traditions. Christians adopted the tradition of decorating Easter eggs as a symbol of the empty tomb, new life and resurrection.
Baby bunnies being born in Spring has long been associated with birth and renewal. The Easter Bunny tradition may have been brought to America by German immigrants in the 1700s, whose traditions included an “Easter hare” bringing eggs to good children.
19th century commercialization popularized bunnies and eggs through Easter cards. The first edible Easter bunnies were sugared pastries in Germany in the 19th century. Confectionery companies began manufacturing chocolate eggs.
Today, over $14 billion is spent every Easter season, averaging $130 per household. 120 million pounds of candy are purchased, including 90 million chocolate bunnies, 700 million marshmallow Peeps, and more than 16 million jelly beans - enough to circle the globe three times.