This year on 1st April, Christians will celebrate Easter, the day on which the resurrection of Jesus is said to have taken place. The date of celebration changes from year to year.
In A.D. 325 the Emperor Constantine, in order to resolve several disputes among Christian leaders, decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring equinox. So, in 2019, Easter will be celebrated on April 21, and on April 12 in 2020.
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 the beginning of Spring. It is important to point out, however, that while the name “Easter” is used in the English-speaking world (and Ostern in German), many more cultures refer to it by terms best translated as “Passover” (for instance, “Pâques” in French, “Pascha” in Greek and Latin, “Pascua” in Spanish) – a reference, indeed, to the Jewish festival of Passover.
Over the last 200 years or so, the celebration of Easter and other major holidays like Christmas and Halloween, has evolved, blending elements of Christian and pagan traditions. It is also true that most major holidays have some connection to the changing of seasons.
This is very much the case with Easter: the vernal equinox, 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. But 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 Easter bunny and Easter eggs
From the 17th century onward, childhood has been increasingly recognised as a time in life that should be joyous, and not simply as a preparation for adulthood. This “discovery of childhood” and the doting upon children had profound effects on how Easter was celebrated.
Given the obvious symbolism of new life, it is easy to understand how eggs have come to play an important role in the celebration of Easter. Decorated eggs had been part of the Easter festival at least since medieval times, and in many countries the process of decorating them is extremely elaborate.
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. Over time, the wild hare was replaced by the more docile rabbit, another indication of how the focus moved toward children.
But in France …
No Easter Bunny, But Flying Easter Bells, “les Cloches de Pâques”
The Catholic tradition dictates that Church bells don’t ring between Good Friday “Vendredi Saint” and Easter Sunday, to commemorate the death of Christ and his resurrection.
According to oral tradition then, the bells would fly off to Rome during that time (where they grow two little wings and dress up with a lovely ribbon) to be blessed by the Pope. Traditionally, they fly back to France on Saturday night, loaded with treats which they drop to the great delight of children. So, Sunday morning we have the much anticipated “chasse aux oeufs”!!!
Someone usually shouts “les cloches sont passées” and all the children run outside (or inside) to collect chocolate or sugar eggs, hens, roosters, chicks, bunnies and lambs… and flying bells of course, all symbolic of Easter, Spring and renewal.
The traditional Easter meal in France
Further symbolism is evident in the traditional meal served in France at Easter. As Jesus’ death is considered his sacrifice, He is identified with the sacrificial lamb of the Jewish tradition. The lamb also symbolises new life, as it happens in Spring.
And so the main course will feature a leg of lamb, served with fresh colourful Spring garden vegetables. The table will be usually very lively, with pots of daisies and other Spring flowers. Many people will also use Easter eggs to decorate the table.