Easter is a holiday that immediately brings many different images to mind for different people. This holiday, which most people associate with Christianity, may have its roots in even older celebrations of the spring season. Even among Christians who celebrate it as the feast of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is definite joy in the celebrants for the turning of the seasons back to warmth and more sunlight.
A Global Religion
At heart, Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus, who is at the center of the Christian religion. This event would have occurred two thousand years ago in Israel. However, Christianity spread, slowly at first, until it was found in every corner of the globe. As it spread, it took on the customs of different people and environs. That is why the global celebrations of this religion and this particular feast are so different yet retain a common theme: death and renewal.
How Easter Is Celebrated Around the World
Rome is an excellent place to begin because it is home to the spiritual capital of the largest Christian denomination: Roman Catholicism. In particular, the Vatican is located in Rome and it is the residence of the Pope, who is the chief bishop of Roman Catholics.
As with some other denominations, Catholicism precedes the day of Easter with weeks of preparation. The last week before this day is known as Holy Week. This entire week in Rome and around the Vatican is punctuated with various religious rites. On Holy Thursday, the Pope publicly washes the feet of twelve people chosen from a variety of backgrounds. On Good Friday, the Pope and many other worshippers retrace the last steps of Jesus as they follow the 14 Stations of the Cross from the Colosseum to Monte Palatino.
The Easter celebration actually begins on Saturday night, when Catholics and many other Christians recognize that their God would have risen from the tomb, descended to rescue souls from Hell and then ascended again to rise from the dead and exit the tomb. Open-air Papal Masses, the religious rite of Catholics, are repeated with tens of thousands of worshippers in St. Peter’s Square.
Jerusalem is not just the site of the resurrection of Jesus. It is a crucial center for many of the existing religions that surround this prophet and son of God. An assortment of religious bodies, known to the West as the Eastern Orthodox, is in communion with the patriarch of Jerusalem. This individual is a bishop who can trace his line back to the original apostles. The religious celebration occurs in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This ancient church receives Orthodox priests and monks robed in white. They chant the liturgy amid the rising incense in this building which was built over the very place where Jesus rose from the dead.
This city is home to the highest among the religious leaders of the Eastern Orthodox. The Patriarch of Constantinople is recognized among the Eastern Orthodox as the first among all their bishops. His domain is over the city that was declared as the New Rome by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine.
The Orthodox do not all follow the same calendar as is used in the West and elsewhere. They keep their religious observations according to the old Julian calendar. Therefore, they celebrate Easter on a different day than the rest of the world, though always on a Sunday.
The Easter liturgy of this denomination will begin close to midnight on Saturday night before Easter. Standing in the darkness of churches such as Agia Triada, the Holy Trinity in Constantinople, worshippers wait with their priests and hold unlit candles. The priest lights his first and then lights those of the worshippers closest to him. The light spreads out from there until each worshipper holds a lit candle that represents the new life in Jesus.
Russia is the ancient home of one of the most respected Eastern Orthodox churches. Christianity came officially to Russia a thousand years ago. Like many other Eastern Orthodox churches, worshippers gather on the night before Sunday Easter in their churches. Their priest is enclosed in the inner sanctuary, while all wait in the dark. Just at the stroke of midnight, the priest opens the door of this sanctuary and proclaims that Christ is risen. Worshippers respond by saying that he is risen, indeed.
Curiously, while Easter eggs are considered a Western invention by many people, the Russians have an age-old tradition of decorating eggs for Easter. They also have a community feast in the Church proper, with cakes and other sweets. The priest blesses the food before it is eaten.
When England joined the Reformation in the 16th century, they gradually began to leave behind certain celebrations and traditions that had been more common when the populace was Catholic. However, the English still retain some old rituals while they embrace new ones. For example, people still gather palm branches on the Sunday before Easter, known as Palm Sunday. These are meant as symbolic remembrances of the palms which people laid before the path of Jesus as he approached Jerusalem.
In England, they have a particular dance which is used on Easter. Known as the Morris Dance, the dancers are usually male and they dance in large groups while wearing distinctive clothing.
The original word for Easter, Pascha, comes from the Aramaic. However, the English term is originally German. This country is home to a variety of Christian denominations, such as Catholicism, Lutheranism and Orthodoxy. The country as a whole celebrates with a very long weekend. Both Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays in this country.
The tradition of egg hiding is alive and well in Germany. Parents hide the eggs early on the morning of Easter Sunday and also give their children baskets of treats. Religious families attend services at their respective churches this day and usually follow that with an Easter lunch. This often contains lamb as well as other dishes.
They take Holy Week very seriously in Mexico. This is a very Catholic country. On Good Friday, very realistic portrayals of the crucifixion of Christ occur throughout the country, in big cities and small villages. On Holy Saturday, many places will burn Judas in effigy. Oddly enough, on Easter Sunday you generally do not hear about the Easter Bunny in Mexico. People go to Mass and quietly celebrate at home.
• The United States
The tradition of Easter eggs may come from elsewhere but it was in the US that it became such a hit, including the Easter Bunny and the egg hunts for children. The US is a home to many religious traditions, some of which celebrate Easter in church and others which do not. Those Christian denominations that celebrate holidays attend their biggest religious observances of the year.
• The Middle East
Many of the Christians in Iraq belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church. This church, in allegiance to Rome, is one of the oldest Christian communities. They have a liturgy that is distinct from the kind used by Roman Catholics in the West but they call it mass as well. They celebrate the same important days as their coreligionists in the West but the liturgical language that they use is Aramaic, the language which Jesus and the apostles spoke.
There are many similarities throughout all the different traditions of Easters celebration around the world. While each culture has its own take on the day, they all focus on the same resurrection event for this day.