Easter, one of Christianity’s biggest celebrations, is the Sunday of all Sundays, the holiday of all holidays, the king of all days. It’s the time of year for coloured eggs, Easter bread, rich Paskha, ringing bells and Easter greetings where people exchange a triple kiss and repeat: “Christ has Risen! Truly, He has Risen!” For this issue’s “Culture” section, we decided to delve into the history of the holiday, its connection to the Jewish Pesach, its spiritual significance and of course, the traditions that go hand in hand.
Translated by Yelena Galstyan
Languages often store amazing knowledge and historical codes that we no longer use. Surprisingly, few people today pay attention to the deeper meanings of some common expressions. For example, the expression “Common Era” is not just an abstract form of new chronology, but rather a specific period of humanity’s existence since the birth of Jesus Christ. We often use words for their unitary purpose, while cutting off their true meaning. Precisely this happened with the word “Sunday.” In the Russian language, this day of the week is named in honour of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion. Up until the 16th century in Russia, only one day of the year was called Sunday, and that was Easter. A Sunday afternoon was called “nedelya” – that is, the day no one works. Thus, the language reflected people’s attitude toward the Resurrection of Christ: Sunday was the most important day of the week, and Easter, the most important day of the year.
We’ll continue with the etymological experiments. Why is the commemoration of Christ’s resurrection called by a word derived from the Hebrew “Pesach?” Because for thirteen centuries before the birth of Christ, this Old Testament feast was already celebrated by the Jews. The Book of Exodus tells the story of more than four centuries of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:40) and as the last plague, the Lord slayed all the male firstborns of Egypt because the Egyptian Pharaoh refused to release the enslaved Jews. That night, in anticipation of the outcome, the Israelis made their first Passover feast. The head of each family would slay a young lamb, anoint the doorway with its blood, and bake the animal in a fire while making sure not to break its bones. On the night of the full moon of the spring month of Nisan, in the second half of the 13th century BC, the Israelis accomplished their exodus from Egypt, which became the most important event of the Old Testament stories. And Passover, which coincided with the exodus, became an annual holiday – remembrance of their escape to freedom. So the name “Pesach” points to the dramatic moment of the night when passing over Egypt, God’s angel, seeing the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of Jewish homes, spared the Israeli firstborns.
This is how Yuru Ruban, candidate of theology at St. Petersburg State University describes the relationship between the old testament and the new testament Easter in his work Easter: History, Liturgy, Tradition. “The night of the exodus became the rebirth of the people and marked the beginning of their independence.” As for the final salvation of the world and the spiritual victory over slavery, Jesus Christ accomplished that later on. Christ the Messiah, who came to save the humanity from spiritual “Egyptian bondage”, took part in the Jewish Passover. During the last supper, Jesus Christ established a new tradition – the sacrament of the Eucharist – and spoke to his disciples of his impending death as of a Passover sacrifice, in which he would be the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”
For the Jews, the Passover lamb was meant to be “a male without blemishes” and sacrificed in the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan. Precisely at this time, the Saviour was brought to his death on a cross. The executed were to be buried before nightfall, so the Roman soldiers, to hasten their deaths, broke the legs of the two thieves crucified with the Lord. But upon approaching Jesus they saw that he was already dead. This fulfilled John 19:33,36 that says: “A bone of his shall not be broken. <…> This profound relationship between the Old and New Easter and their convergence in the person of Jesus Christ explain why the holiday of His Resurrection retains the Old Testament’s name of Paskha.”
In most European languages, the name of Christ’s Resurrection day is derived from “Paskha”. Pascha, is the Latinised word Pesach. It’s Pascua in Spanish, Pasqua in Italian, Páscoa in Portuguese, Pâques in French, Pasen in Dutch, and Påske in Norwegian and Danish. In German and in English, the origin of the holiday name dates back to the ancient goddess called Ēostre or Ostara, in honour of which April activities were usually arranged. Therefore Germans call it Ostern and English speakers, Easter. Ostara was the day when light and dark powers were in harmony, and at the same time it was the celebration of spring and the revival of the world. The tradition and meaning (the rebirth of light forces, life, victory over a dark and cold death) of this celebration were converted into Christianity and fused with Christ and his resurrection.
The New Testament Easter was established by the apostles shortly after Christ’s resurrection and became the first official Christian celebration. Early Christians celebrated Easter weekly. Every Friday, they recalled the sufferings of Christ, and every Sunday was a day of joy. Around 200 AD, it became an annual holiday. Initially Christians followed the traditions of the Passover celebration, but later, many churches began to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after it.
At the first Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, it was decided that all the churches would celebrate Easter on the same day. In Alexandria, Egypt, the day for the holiday was calculated using the lunar-solar calendar. The rules were as follows: Easter was meant to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the onset of the full moon or immediately after the vernal equinox (March 21) and only after the Jewish Passover. If the date of Easter coincided with the Jewish Passover, it was necessary to delay it until the full moon of the next month.
Rome adopted the Alexandrian Easter between the 6th and 8th centuries. However, about a thousand years later, the Catholic and Orthodox Church stopped celebrating Easter according to the previously stated rules. This happened because the calendar days of full moons and equinoxes no longer coincided with astronomical observations. In the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar and Easter. He suggested for Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople to adopt the new calendar because it had the greatest correlation with astrological observations. However, the patriarch condemned the Gregorian calendar, Easter and all those who celebrated it.
Thus, as the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church began to carry out their own calculations using different systems, their Easters dates no longer coincided. Sometimes they do, as they did in 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2011. It’ll happen again this year, but the next time different denominations celebrate Easter in one day will be in 2017.
It’s common to call the week preceding Easter the “holy week.” The last few days are especially important. Maundy Thursday is a day of spiritual cleansing and taking the sacrament; Good Friday is another reminder of the suffering of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Saturday, is a day of grieving until He finally rises on Sunday.
The Orthodox Slavs had many customs and rituals to mark the days of the Holy Week. Maundy Thursday is traditionally referred to as a “cleanse” because on this day every Orthodox person spiritually cleanses himself by seeking communion and receiving the sacrament that Christ established. Maundy Thursday spread a popular custom of being cleansed by water—whether swimming in an ice-cold river or lake or pouring water over oneself in the bath before sunrise. On this day the house was also cleaned and all the washing was done.
On Maundy Thursday, the Orthodox Slavs would start preparing the festive table on which wealthy families would place more than 48 different dishes, based on the days that have past since lent. They would bake lamb and ham, roast veal, make Paskha, bake kulichi, baba cake, blini, and gingerbread and make small pastries out of fine flour in the shape of crosses, sheep, cocks, hens, doves, etc. Well-baked Easter bread in its form resembles Artos – the symbol of Jesus Christ. A properly prepared cake is aromatic and beautiful and could last for weeks without spoiling for all 40 days of Easter. Curd Paskha, on the other hand, is the prototype of the Kingdom of Heaven. Milk and honey is an image of endless joy, sweetness of paradisaical life and blissful eternity.
Also, on Maundy Thursday, eggs are painted. This custom is associated with Saint Mary Magdalene, who according to legend presented an egg to Roman Emperor Tiberious as a sign of Christ’s Resurrection. The emperor did not believe her and said that just like a white egg doesn’t turn red, the dead don’t rise. At that moment, the egg turned red. This coloured egg is a symbol of resurrection, and a symbol of Easter. Just like new life comes out of an egg, the world was born again through the resurrection of Christ. Red represents the joy of the resurrection, rebirth of the human race, but it is also the colour of spilled blood on the cross, which atoned for the sins of the world.
Eggs are coloured red quite often, but today we love to paint them in various colours and decorate them in many different ways. Today, painting eggs has evolved into true art and involves many techniques.
Take for example, pysanka – when a raw egg is painted with beeswax and paint and decorated in one of the most meticulous ways. Patterns are “drawn” on a cold raw egg using hot wax and a stylus. Once the pattern has been made, the egg is dipped into cold diluted paint (starting with the lightest colours), wiped, drawn on with a new wax pattern and dipped into another paint. When all the patterns are drawn, the wax is carefully melted off the egg using a flame.
There are many more styles of egg painting such as krashenky, when boiled eggs are coloured in a single shade without patterns (popular technique for Easter) or krapanky, when spots, stripes and speckles are added with hot wax to eggs with a plain background or dryapanky (shkrabanky) when the single-coloured eggs are scratched with a sharp edge to create a pattern. Then there are malyovanky eggs, decorated with an invented pattern that doesn’t bear symbolic significance and can be decorated with just paint. Of course, there are also yaychata eggs, carved out of wood or stone or made of porcelain and clay. These eggs were crafted in Russia as early as the thirteenth century. Later, the eggs were decorated with beads, lace and knitting. The most famous “Yaychata” eggs in the world were crafted by imperial jeweller Carl Fabergé.
For Easter, it’s common to gift each other painted eggs, often in baskets, and break the fast on the feast day. In Anglo-Saxon countries, the Easter bunny is a popular character that brings chocolate eggs to well-behaved children. On Easter morning, children go on a scavenger hunt to find eggs and sweets.
For centuries in Russia, egg rolling has been an all-time favourite game. People would install wooden or cardboard rinks and lay toys and souvenirs around it. Players took turns approaching the rink and rolling their egg. The object touched by an egg would be the prize for that player. Today, a more common game involves knocking eggs against one another. You hit an opponent’s egg with yours and the winner is the one whose egg doesn’t crack.
Instead of a conclusion
When I sat down to write this article, I remembered the words Galina Ostrovskaya, professor of the Far Eastern Federal University and the Far Eastern State Academy of Art, a journalist and an acclaimed theatre critic, once said to us during a lecture when I was a student: “What is the most important holiday of the year?” she asked. “Victory Day.” After a pause, she added, “and Easter for the Christians. Both proclaim the victory of life over death.” I only realised the profound meaning of these words after leaving my alma mater.
I hope everyone reading these lines now remembers this simple truth and feels it in every fibre of their body and soul, honouring our traditions and experiencing the true joy of Easter this coming year.