Fri. Jan 22nd, 2021

Easter: What it is, origins of traditions, dates and more

Easter traditions what is EasterEaster has taken up a central position in the lives of South Africans whether they observe the Christian faith or not.

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In the Christian tradition, Easter is the most important and oldest festival and marks the death and resurrection Jesus Christ.

Easter forms the basis of Christian belief, establishing the church’s fundamental doctrine of justification though faith and fulfilling centuries old prophecy. The death of Jesus is said to atone for the sins of the faithful and the resurrection to demonstrate God’s power over death. In most Christian churches doctrine dictates that Jesus fulfilled old Testament law and turned aside the wrath of God for all those who believe in Jesus and his sacrifice and repent.

The festival is fixed onto the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern spring equinox. It occurs around, but not always on top of, the Jewish festival of Passover. Passover itself is significant to Christians as Judaism and its traditions forms the basis of their belief. This year Passover takes place from 19 to 27 April. Both Passover and Easter are celebrations of God’s mercy towards mankind for the faithful.

Where does the name Easter come from?

The first reference to the festival as Easter comes from around the 7th and 8th century in England where Christianity had replaced pagan traditions. It is derived from the name of Eostre, the goddess of spring and fertility.

Before assuming that name Easter had been referred to by the term Pascha or derivatives thereof which stem from the festivals Jewish origins.

Easter Eggs

Decorated eggs had formed a big part of pagan festivals but in Eastern Europe there is also a strong traditional link between apocryphal accounts surrounding the crucifixion.

In the Greek orthodox tradition Easter eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ, shed on the Cross, and the hard shell of the egg symbolizes the sealed Tomb of Jesus.

Another tradition, this one popular among Catholics, claims that Mary Magdelene presented herself to Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ, with an egg in hand to illustrate her message. The emperor is said to have scoffed and said Jesus had no more risen than the egg in her hand was red. Immediately, the egg turned red as a sign to illustrate the truth of her message according to the story.

The Easter Bunny

Another tradition connected to Europe’s pagan past, this one is believed to have it origins in 17tn century Germany. Rabbits and Hares remarkable fertility had long seen them be associated with spring.

The Easter Bunny as we know it today is a relatively modern concept refined in the United States and England and exported to the world through imperial expansion and modern media.


There are a number of significant dates surrounding Easter. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of lent a period of fasting or self-denial lasting forty days leading up to the holy week.

Holy Week itself begins with Palm Sunday, which celebrates Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem which according to biblical tradition saw great crowds welcome him into the city as he rode in on a young donkey in accordance with the words of the prophet Zechariah who wrote “The Coming of Zion’s King – See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Maundy Thursday is the Christian holy day falling on the Thursday before Easter. It commemorates the Maundy and the famous Last Supper. It is on this day that Jesus is said to have given his disciples a new commandment ‘Love one another as I have loved you’. For the devout this is a day of reflection and prayer where they consider the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and the betrayal and arrest of Jesus. Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, or commandment.

Good Friday is so named because of its position of prominence as a holy day in German speaking countries the day is referred to as Karfreitag or Grief Friday because it is the day on which Jesus was said to be crucified and laid to rest. Christian Churches will most often hold a full day of services on this day and some observe a fast that lasts until Sunday morning.

Holy Saturday has very few daytime observances but the day also known as Black Saturday begins the Easter Vigil for a portion of the faithful after dark. The vigil service is often the occasion for baptisms and in the Catholic church adult inductees to the church will often take their first communion on this day.

Easter Sunday or resurrection Sunday as it suggests celebrates the resurrection of Jesus and effectively the establishment of the Christian faith.

The days of Easter are not celebrated by all Christians with some believing that the days are too wordly and have too much of a commercial angle while others feel that the festival is inherently pagan and runs contrary to their beliefs.

As Good Friday and Easter Sunday are public holidays in South Africa many easter traditions are observed in a secular manner, particularly egg hunts and appearances by the Easter bunny.

This year Easter itself stretches from Friday 19 April until Sunday 21 April.

Local Traditions

Every part of the world seems to have a different unique Easter traditions and they can even differ from family to family.

Easter Eggs and church attendance are the most basic elements but there are also a whole range of traditional foods such as hot cross buns. In the Western Cape the traditional consumption of pickled fish is a charming tradition that is born out of the city’s melting pot of cultures and the days when nobody was permitted to work over the weekend, the seafood dish became a favourite because it could feed an the whole family and last the entire weekend.

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