Easter arrives early again this year, the greatest festival of the Christian religion, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a movable feast; that is, it is not always on the same date. The church council way back in A.D. 325 decided that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon, on or immediately after, the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. Easter can come as early as March 22 and as late as April 25.

In many churches, Easter is preceded by a season of prayer and fasting, which we call Lent. This is observed in memory of the 40 days' fast of Christ in the desert. In the Roman Catholic Church for example, Lent is observed for six weeks and four days – from Ash Wednesday to midnight of Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast and abstinence; and in the Catholic tradition, all Fridays are days of abstinence.

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of putting ashes on the foreheads of the faithful. This is to remind good people that “man is but dust” and that he must do penance. The second Sunday before Easter is Passion Sunday. The week following is now usually called Passion Week, although, Passion Week originally meant the week before Easter. Palm Sunday is one week before Easter, and celebrates the triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Holy Thursday is in memory of the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples. Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion.

Many Easter customs come to us from the Old World. Shrove Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent, is also known by its French name, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). Mardi Gras celebrations have made New Orleans famous and is celebrated in many other cities around the United States.

The butterfly and Easter lily are both symbols of the resurrection (the lily with the big, white trumpet-shaped blooms). Easter services are generally the most elaborate services of the year for most churches, and some even hold sunrise services outdoors.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories of Easter as a child was the Easter bunny and coloring Easter eggs with my sister, Margie, the night before. Then on Sunday, hiding them out of sight somewhere for a good ol' fashion Easter egg hunt.

I don't know about the Easter bunny, must have had something to do with fertility, but the origins of the Easter egg itself goes way back in ancient times to pagan history, a symbol of new life. Most of the ancient civilizations regarded the egg as the seed of life and fertility, or a symbol of the resurrection. So, it is not surprising that it was adopted as a reminder of Jesus Christ's resurrection.

The egg rolling contests of today are leftovers from earlier times when farmers used to roll eggs across their fields to ensure a good crop for the upcoming year. Dolly Madison introduced that European custom of rolling eggs to the American children on the White House lawn. Each year so many children participated in the rolling of Easter eggs that the precious green lawn suffered tremendously and the game was at some point transferred to the Capitol terrace, but it just wasn't quite the same. So, President Rutherford B. Hayes' wife, the nation's first lady, took pity on the many disappointed children and returned the egg rolling to the White House lawn. Since the beginning however, Easter Monday egg rolling at the White House has become a national institution.

Reference: “Strange Stories and Amazing Facts,” by the editors of Readers Digest.

To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.