You walk into Target and see pastel butterflies and vibrant florals. The drug store tempts you with piles of chocolate eggs and jelly beans. You can’t even go to the grocery store without your kid flipping her lid over the mounds of adorable stuffed toy bunnies. You guessed it: Easter is coming. But wait; is it always at the end of April? Shouldn’t it be on the same day every year? And what do delicious marshmallow chicks have to do with a Christian holiday? Wait, Easter is a Christian holiday, right?
You have questions. I have answers. I’m just your friendly neighborhood pastor mom, ready to answer your questions about what on earth Easter is, what you’re supposed to do with it, and how to make it meaningful and fun.
What is Easter?
Easter is the yearly Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God (but also God all on his own; it’s complicated) who lived about 2,000 years ago in Roman-occupied Palestine. He was publicly executed for religious and political conflicts. Christians celebrate Easter as the day he rose from the dead, which grants believers life, forgiveness, and a connection to God.
So then what’s up with the bunnies and stuff?
It depends on who you talk to because symbols like chicks, butterflies, rabbits, and flowers have been in the mix with Easter celebrations for millennia. The more pessimistic among us like to accuse Christians of just stealing pagan festivals. Spring fertility celebrations were a big deal, so symbols of abundant life like birds hatching from eggs or bunnies multiplying were already in use. Christians just took over the reasoning for the celebration.
However, it’s not quite that simple. First of all, almost every religion begs, borrows, and steals from surrounding religions and cultures. Christianity wasn’t necessarily up to any malicious appropriation. Secondly, Christians have their own reasons for the symbols. Chicks hatch from eggs, rabbits emerge from burrows, flowers pop out of the dirt, and butterflies burst from cocoons. For Christians, this seems a lot like emerging from a grave or death in some way. These typical spring events pointed them back to Jesus and his emergence from the tomb and defeat of death. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, signs of spring and signs of Easter line up well.
Also, since Easter is the biggest celebration of the Christian church (believe it or not, yes, it’s even more holy than Christmas) Christians prepare for it for forty days with the somber season of Lent. Many Christians give up certain foods and actions during this time of sacrifice and introspection. Since Easter ends that period, it’s open season on rich, indulgent things like chocolate, ham, and all the jelly beans you can stuff in your face. The delicious treats are a way of celebrating God’s gifts to us in Jesus.
What day is Easter?
That’s easy. Since the Council of Nicea in 325, Easter has been celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Catholics and Protestants calculate this date using the contemporary Gregorian calendar; Orthodox churches typically use the Julian calendar to establish the date, meaning there can be two Easters each year.
Makes total sense, right?
The complication comes because early Christians celebrated Easter alongside Passover, the Jewish holiday on which Jesus died. His resurrection was on a Sunday, so Christians at first couldn’t decide if they should focus on celebrating on Passover or on a Sunday. A few hundred years later, this confusion had to be resolved. The agreed-upon formula kept the date of Easter near Passover, but was not determined by it. But at that time, those in the western world mostly used the Julian calendar. The current Gregorian calendar has only been in effect for about 500 years. This makes picking a date even more tricky. If you use the Gregorian calendar, Easter can fall no earlier than March 22 and no later than April 25, but always on a Sunday.
Why does it seem like Easter is everywhere if it’s a holiday only for Christians?
Here’s where things get even trickier than figuring out the date for Easter. Much of the western world considered itself Christian, including many who settled in the United States. Major church holidays like Christmas and Easter became established as national holidays. Think about it: Christianity is the only religion that gets a holiday as a nationwide day off (Christmas) and its weekly holy day as part of a weekend (Sunday). Christianity established itself as a dominant presence in a big way. Because of that, many who do not consider themselves Christian still get caught up in the celebration. Like with Christmas, there are often family traditions, community events, and consumer opportunities wrapped up in this event.
In this moment, I speak as a mom and a pastor: I think that’s completely okay. Easter is fun. It’s a lively reminder of new beginnings and joy. If you’re a Christian, that’s connected to your faith in Jesus. If you’re not a Christian, you can connect that to something else in your life like springtime, new beginnings, or just a welcome break between Valentine’s Day and Memorial Day. You can recognize the Christian roots of the celebration even if you don’t share the same core beliefs. Easter baskets are a lot of fun. Chocolate is delicious. It’s great to have a reason to get together with loved ones. You get to enjoy all that no matter what faith you do or do not practice.
How should I tell my kid what Easter’s about?
Regardless of your family’s traditions and practices, it’s probably okay to say that Easter is a Christian holiday. After that, you have lots of choices.
If you’re non-religious or from a non-Christian tradition, you probably don’t need to go more in-depth than that. You can explain that it’s a holiday about life and joy, so we celebrate with things that are bright, fun, and special. It’s a day to appreciate that life moves on and everything starts new again.
If you’re Christian, it’s a really great opportunity to explain some core principles of faith to your kids. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are absolutely central to Christian beliefs. Maybe you don’t feel very certain about those things. That’s okay! Use this time as an opportunity to talk to your pastor, others in your church, or those you look up to as you consider what Easter means for you and how you want to explain it to your children. Take time to read the Easter story in the Bible or do some other reading to learn more about what Easter means. Sure, you’re teaching your kids – but you also get to grow and learn, too.
What’s your favorite Easter candy?
Cadbury eggs all day, every day, my friends. Those things are a sticky, sugary fistful of pure joy.