Easter Sunday History
There’s a lot to love about Easter, from the springtime setting with newly bloomed flowers to the fun Easter traditions, like egg hunts and Easter baskets. It’s a holiday loved by many: Eight in ten Americans celebrated the holiday in 2021, and while only 3 percent of those responding to a Harris Poll chose Easter as their favorite holiday (unsurprisingly, most picked Christmas), it consistently ranks in the top five most popular holidays in the United States. But what is Easter all about?
Some celebrants might say it’s about candy—giving it, getting it, gobbling it down before dinner. (The little ones would agree.) But for many people, Easter is more in line with the religious observances of Lent and Good Friday. Before you look into what day Easter is or send those Easter wishes to loved ones, read up on the origins of the holiday as we know it.
What is the original meaning of Easter?
Easter is a religious Christian holiday observed around the world to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the spiritual leader of Christianity—and to Christians, the Son of God. But with some aspects of the holiday rooted in pagan and Jewish traditions, the origin of Easter dates back to centuries before Christ was even born. These days, many people celebrate Easter, regardless of their religion.
What is the story of Easter?
The story of Easter is the story of the start of one of the world’s largest religions. According to the Bible, the Romans crucified Jesus, a popular Jewish preacher and religious leader whom many believed was the son of God. Three days after he was entombed, he was resurrected from the grave, overcoming death, and through his sacrifice, offering salvation to all humankind. So, what is Easter? In short, it’s a holiday celebrating this miracle.
When is Easter this year?
Easter falls on Sunday, April 17, 2022. While many other holidays have fixed dates (Christmas, for instance, is always on December 25), Easter’s date changes from year to year. Determining the date is a little like working out an Easter riddle: What happens on the first Sunday following the full moon that occurs on or just after the spring equinox? Yep, that’s Easter.
Based on the cycles of the moon, the holiday might occur any day from March 22 to April 25. It can get confusing, so here’s a cheat sheet of Easter dates for the next five years:
- Sunday, April 9, 2023
- Sunday, March 31, 2024
- Sunday, April 20, 2025
- Sunday, April 5, 2026
- Sunday, March 28, 2027
History of Easter
The Christian celebration of Jesus’s resurrection may be the most familiar Easter tradition, but it’s certainly not the oldest. The holiday also has roots in paganism and Judaism.
Pagan Easter traditions
There is historical evidence of millennia-old spring celebrations centered around the equinox—early versions of May Day festivals. Because they occurred at the beginning of the planting season, many of these early pagan holidays used symbols of fertility, growth, birth, fortune, and light conquering the dark. Many secular Easter traditions are handed down from these ancient rituals, including Easter baskets, flower crowns, and egg hunts.
Even the holiday’s name has a pagan connection. Historians believe Easter was named after one of the more popular figures in these celebrations: the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre.
Christian Easter traditions
When early Christians were creating their calendar of holy days, it made sense to combine the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection with the traditional spring festival. So instead of centering on the pagan Eostre, the holiday’s religious history is all about Jesus Christ.
The popular Jewish preacher became a target of Jewish authorities after he claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God. The Romans also saw him as a possible political problem. Jesus was tried and convicted of blasphemy by Jewish authorities and sentenced to execution. The Roman governor ordered his death in a brutal Roman style called crucifixion; Jesus was crowned with thorns and nailed to a cross until he died. After, his body was dressed and laid to rest in a stone tomb. Three days later, he was miraculously resurrected and returned to visit his disciples.
Easter serves as the foundation for many holy celebrations that lead up it, starting with Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), Lent (the observance of giving up something you love for 40 days in honor of Jesus’s 40-day fast in the desert), Palm Sunday (the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem and was celebrated as the Messiah), and Good Friday (the day Jesus was crucified).
Traditions like baking hot cross buns and filling empty eggs are symbolic of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the tomb. Other traditions based on the Christian story include listening to performances of Handel’s Messiah and watching Easter movies, including The Passion of the Christ.
Jewish Easter traditions
Other religious Easter traditions come from the concurrent Jewish celebration of Passover, a commemoration of the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. The Jewish holiday provides the basis for Easter feasts and many traditional Easter foods, including lamb.
Why do we celebrate Easter with eggs and bunnies?
Marking such a solemn holiday with a mascot like the Easter Bunny may not seem like the most logical choice. But it begins to make sense when you remember that Eostre is the goddess of fertility, and rabbits mate like, well, rabbits. Baby bunnies are everywhere in the springtime, a sign of fertility and, traditionally speaking, of good luck.
The bunny that brings Easter baskets of goodies for teens, tweens, and little tykes is a relatively modern invention. The origin of the Easter Bunny dates back to the 1900s, when it appeared in advertising cartoons.
Its loot—whether candy-colored dyed eggs or those made from sweet chocolate—is a nod to both pagan and Christian traditions. Eggs represent new life, symbolizing not only the fertility of Eostre but also the rebirth of Christ after death.
Because the holiday is also a celebration of the season, aligning closely with the spring equinox, symbols of spring are incorporated into the festivities. After all, what is Easter without baby chicks, green grass, and flowers in bloom?
How to celebrate Easter
Many people have their own favorite family Easter games and activities, but there’s always room to add more fun. Let the little ones hunker down in front of an Easter movie for kids while adults prep dinner. Get the whole group involved in playing Easter bingo. Or take part in one of the activities below.
Dye Easter eggs
Wax, glitter, stickers, markers, and tubs of brightly colored dyes add whimsy and fun to hard-boiled eggs. Kids and adults alike can express their creative sides while creating designs worthy of holiday decor. Not sure where to begin? Try one of these unique egg-decorating ideas.
Hunt for Easter eggs
Fill plastic eggs with candy and toys, then hide them outdoors for children to find on Easter morning. It’s a treasure hunt, a form of exercise, and a photo opportunity all in one. Hint: This is the Easter candy everyone wants in their baskets this year.
Attend a church service
What is Easter all about? For Christians, it’s the resurrection of Christ after he died on the cross, so church is front and center in the celebration. Most Christian churches offer a special service on Easter morning. It’s tradition to wear your Sunday best while listening to a sermon and singing hymns.
Host Easter dinner
This is the perfect opportunity to gather your loved ones for a celebratory feast. Ham or lamb, potatoes, fresh vegetables, hot cross buns, deviled eggs, fruit salad, and carrot cake are just some of the traditional Easter foods you’re likely to find on the table. If you’re looking to break from tradition, try one of these Easter dinner ideas.
Easter fun facts
There are 50 official flavors of Jelly Belly jelly beans, but the company is always trying out new flavors and releasing limited editions. This year, you can try candy corn and Tabasco. (Though maybe not at the same time.)
180 million eggs are purchased each year for Easter. They’re used for dyeing, hunts, and Easter recipes.
More than 80 percent of parents admit to stealing candy from their kids’ Easter baskets.
Cadbury makes 500 million Creme Eggs every year—more than 1.5 million per day, every single day.
Chocolate bunnies are the most popular item to put in an Easter basket, and over 78 percent of people say they eat the ears first.
60 percent of parents say they still send their adult kids an Easter basket, even after they’ve moved out.
The largest chocolate egg ever created weighed 15,873 pounds—about the size of an elephant! The largest chocolate bunny was 9,360 pounds.
Easter Sunday is the most popular day to attend church in America.
Why Easter is called Easter, and other little-known facts about the holiday
The date of Easter, when the resurrection of Jesus is said to have taken place, changes from year to year.
The reason for this variation is that Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox.
I am a religious studies scholar specializing in early Christianity, and my research shows that this dating of Easter goes back to the complicated origins of this holiday and how it has evolved over the centuries.
Easter is quite similar to other major holidays like Christmas and Halloween, which have evolved over the last 200 years or so. In all of these holidays, Christian and non-Christian (pagan) elements have continued to blend together.
Get news that’s free, independent and evidence-based
Easter as a rite of spring
Most major holidays have some connection to the changing of seasons. This is especially obvious in the case of Christmas. The New Testament gives no information about what time of year Jesus was born. Many scholars believe, however, that the main reason Jesus’ birth came to be celebrated on December 25 is because that was the date of the winter solstice according to the Roman calendar.
Since the days following the winter solstice gradually become longer and less dark, it was ideal symbolism for the birth of “the light of the world” as stated in the New Testament’s Gospel of John.
Similar was the case with Easter, which falls in close proximity to another key point in the solar year: the vernal equinox (around March 20), when there are equal periods of light and darkness. For those in northern latitudes, the coming of spring is often met with excitement, as it means an end to the cold days of winter.
Spring also means the coming back to life of plants and trees that have been dormant for winter, as well as the birth of new life in the animal world. Given the symbolism of new life and rebirth, it was only natural to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at this time of the year.
The naming of the celebration as “Easter” seems to go back to the name of a pre-Christian goddess in England, Eostre, who was celebrated at beginning of spring. The only reference to this goddess comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late seventh and early eighth century. As religious studies scholar Bruce Forbes summarizes:
“Bede wrote that the month in which English Christians were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus had been called Eosturmonath in Old English, referring to a goddess named Eostre. And even though Christians had begun affirming the Christian meaning of the celebration, they continued to use the name of the goddess to designate the season.”
Bede was so influential for later Christians that the name stuck, and hence Easter remains the name by which the English, Germans and Americans refer to the festival of Jesus’ resurrection.
The connection with Jewish Passover
It is important to point out that while the name “Easter” is used in the English-speaking world, many more cultures refer to it by terms best translated as “Passover” (for instance, “Pascha” in Greek) – a reference, indeed, to the Jewish festival of Passover.
In the Hebrew Bible, Passover is a festival that commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, as narrated in the Book of Exodus. It was and continues to be the most important Jewish seasonal festival, celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
At the time of Jesus, Passover had special significance, as the Jewish people were again under the dominance of foreign powers (namely, the Romans). Jewish pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem every year in the hope that God’s chosen people (as they believed themselves to be) would soon be liberated once more.
On one Passover, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the festival. He entered Jerusalem in a triumphal procession and created a disturbance in the Jerusalem Temple. It seems that both of these actions attracted the attention of the Romans, and that as a result Jesus was executed around the year A.D. 30.
Some of Jesus’ followers, however, believed that they saw him alive after his death, experiences that gave birth to the Christian religion. As Jesus died during the Passover festival and his followers believed he was resurrected from the dead three days later, it was logical to commemorate these events in close proximity.
Some early Christians chose to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the same date as the Jewish Passover, which fell around day 14 of the month of Nisan, in March or April. These Christians were known as Quartodecimans (the name means “Fourteeners”).
By choosing this date, they put the focus on when Jesus died and also emphasized continuity with the Judaism out of which Christianity emerged. Some others instead preferred to hold the festival on a Sunday, since that was when Jesus’ tomb was believed to have been found.
In A.D. 325, the Emperor Constantine, who favored Christianity, convened a meeting of Christian leaders to resolve important disputes at the Council of Nicaea. The most fateful of its decisions was about the status of Christ, whom the council recognized as “fully human and fully divine.” This council also resolved that Easter should be fixed on a Sunday, not on day 14 of Nisan. As a result, Easter is now celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox.
The Easter bunny and Easter eggs
In early America, the Easter festival was far more popular among Catholics than Protestants. For instance, the New England Puritans regarded both Easter and Christmas as too tainted by non-Christian influences to be appropriate to celebrate. Such festivals also tended to be opportunities for heavy drinking and merrymaking.
The fortunes of both holidays changed in the 19th century, when they became occasions to be spent with one’s family. This was done partly out of a desire to make the celebration of these holidays less rowdy.
But Easter and Christmas also became reshaped as domestic holidays because understandings of children were changing. Prior to the 17th century, children were rarely the center of attention. As historian Stephen Nissenbaum writes,
“…children were lumped together with other members of the lower orders in general, especially servants and apprentices – who, not coincidentally, were generally young people themselves.”
From the 17th century onward, there was an increasing recognition of childhood as as time of life that should be joyous, not simply as preparatory for adulthood. This “discovery of childhood” and the doting upon children had profound effects on how Easter was celebrated.
It is at this point in the holiday’s development that Easter eggs and the Easter bunny become especially important. Decorated eggs had been part of the Easter festival at least since medieval times, given the obvious symbolism of new life. A vast amount of folklore surrounds Easter eggs, and in a number of Eastern European countries, the process of decorating them is extremely elaborate. Several Eastern European legends describe eggs turning red (a favorite color for Easter eggs) in connection with the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Yet it was only in the 17th century that a German tradition of an “Easter hare” bringing eggs to good children came to be known. Hares and rabbits had a long association with spring seasonal rituals because of their amazing powers of fertility.
When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought this tradition with them. The wild hare also became supplanted by the more docile and domestic rabbit, in another indication of how the focus moved toward children.
As Christians celebrate the festival this spring in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection, the familiar sights of the Easter bunny and Easter eggs serve as a reminder of the holiday’s very ancient origins outside of the Christian tradition.