A Weekend of Holy Days

Last weekend was Palm Sunday, the first day of the Christian Holy Week, a seven-day span that culminates today.

This weekend is Easter and Passover which have a number of similarities but are very different holidays. This year the two holidays overlap but that only happens in some years and they can occur a month apart.

da Vinci
  The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci   Link

I remember as a young boy learning via The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci depicted Jesus having a Seder dinner. I think I asked a teacher why we Christians didn’t have a seder too and was told it was because it was associated with Judaism.

I was older when I learned that in early Church history (the first two centuries) the followers of Jesus commemorated the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the same day as Passover. In fact, Easter was known then as Pascha – the Greek for Passover.

Last night was  “Good Friday” when the Last Supper occurred. The term “Good Friday” also confused me as a kid. What was so good about Jesus being betrayed and arrested? The “good” part comes from the obsolete sense of “pious or holy.” Since we already had a whole week of holy days, why didn’t we just call it Holy Friday?

The term “Last Supper” does not even appear in the New Testament. It is traditionally how most Christians refer to the day while  Protestants usually use the term “Lord’s Supper.” The Eastern Orthodox use the term “Mystical Supper” and the Russian Orthodox use the term “Secret Supper.”

The Jewish feast of Passover was instituted 3,400 years ago and Easter and Christianity and its holidays emerged in the centuries after Jesus’ death. Easter as a holiday commemorates Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the city of Jerusalem for Passover, where he was greeted by a crowd of people laying palm branches at his feet as a sign of respect.

The Passover meal, according to biblical law, had to be eaten in a state of purity. The pilgrims, including Jesus, entered the city to undergo a week-long ritual of purification.

At that meal, Jesus established the sacrament of Communion using elements of the Passover seder. In the New Testament, Jesus is called the Passover lamb.

Passover was a time to remember the exodus of the ancient Hebrew people from Egypt. It is still celebrated by having a meal where families and friends of the family read scripture while drinking four glasses of wine and eating foods that represent the exodus from slavery.

Much of Easter has been commercialized and has little to do with the religious meaning of the day. Even non-Christians are aware of Easter eggs, baskets of candy, and a silly Easter Bunny.  Still, both holidays use eggs as symbols of rebirth and resurrection. Both celebrations include sweet foods.

Differences? Jewish people gather to remember hard times and celebrate freedom while Christians gather to celebrate a miracle.

Both are moveable feasts of spring (in the Northern Hemisphere). Passover takes place during the Hebrew calendar month of Nissan, as prescribed in Exodus 12:18 which commands that Passover be celebrated, “from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.”

Easter is traditionally celebrated on the first Sunday following the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) that lands on or just after the spring equinox and it changes on the solar calendar.

Moses is the primary person remembered on Passover while Easter celebrates Jesus.

The word “holiday” comes from the Old English word hāligdæg (hālig “holy” + dæg “day”) and originally it only referred to special religious days. In modern usage, it has been used broadly to mean any dedicated day or period of celebration in North America) and in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, “holiday” is often used instead of the word vacation.

Passover is 7 – 8 nights. Though Easter is one holy day, it has 7 holy days preceding it. (Unfortunately, the commercial holiday part of it starts at least a month before.)

More about Easter and Passover including Eostre, rabbits, and why we color eggs.

Eostre and a Spring Hare

A Lunar Hare by Mandy Walden

Today is Easter Sunday, the Christian holy day whose date is based on the cycles of the moon. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the full Moon that occurs on or just after the spring equinox.

I have written before about the word “Easter” which has its origin in earlier pagan traditions that worshiped Eostre, the goddess of springtime. It was a seasonal celebration of the return of the sun after winter.

The non-sectarian Easter bunny first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and transported their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.” Children made nests in which this creature could lay its colored eggs.

A rabbit that lays eggs?  The mythological origin seems to date back the sacred animal of the goddess Ostara who was a German goddess of Springtime. She may have been an invention of Jacob Grimm who was one of the Grimm Brothers of the fairy tales) but also a folklorist. In 1835, he published a book of German Mythology. He thought that Ostara might have been the German version of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Springtime called Eostre from whom we get the name Easter.

The pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons celebrated Eostre’s feast day on the Vernal Equinox in March. Eostre’s symbolic animal was the spring hare (rabbit) and this association with eggs and hares was co-opted into the Christian holiday of Easter in order to make Easter more easily accepted in converting the pagans to Christianity.

Coloring and painting eggs are things the ancient Persians did for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, which falls on the Spring equinox. There are images on the walls of Persepolis showing people carrying eggs for Nowrooz to the king.

At the Jewish Passover Seder, a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water symbolizes the Passover sacrifice offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.


An Easter basket from nature – robin nest

So Many Hallows Before the Darker Half of the Year

A cemetery decorated for All Hallows Day which is a religious holiday, but it still looks Halloween creepy here.

Everyone knows Halloween the holiday, but I’m always surprised how few people know the origin of the word itself. It is also written as Hallowe’en and it dates to about 1745. It might have an older Christian origin, though Christian churches often consider this holiday to be not holy day at all and more of a pagan celebration.

The verb, to hallow is “to make holy or sacred, to sanctify or consecrate, to venerate.” The adjective form is hallowed, which appears in “The Lord’s Prayer” (“hallowed be thy name”), means holy, consecrated, sacred, or revered.

The noun form, hallow (as used in Hallowtide) is a synonym for the word saint. The noun is from the Old English adjective hālig, “holy.”

In modern English usage, the noun “hallow” appears mostly in the compounds Hallowtide, Hallowmas, and Halloween.

Hallowtide and Hallowmas are not as well known as Halloween. Hallowtide is a liturgical season that includes Halloween and Hallowmas. The latter is the feast of Allhallows or All Saints’ Day, on November 1.

And now, here are the many hallows that have come to be and confuse us.

Halloween/Hallowe’en is a shortened form of “All Hallow Even(ing),” meaning “All Hallows’ Eve” or “All Saints’ Eve.”

Hallowmas is the day after Halloween and it is shortened from “Hallows’ Mass,” and is also known as “All Hallows’ Day” or “All Saints’ Day.”

So, the word “Hallowe’en” means “Saints’ evening” and it comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve. In that case, the word “eve” is “even” which is contracted to e’en or been. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Hallowe’en.

Call it Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve. It is celebrated in many countries on the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It begins the observance of Allhallowtide which is the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, but really all the faithful departed.

The history of all this is not clear. Some historians believe that Halloween traditions were influenced by ancient Celtic harvest festivals. The festival usually mentioned is the Gaelic festival Samhain. which marks the end of the harvest season and beginning of the “darker half” of the year – winter.

Another theory is that Samhain was “Christianized” to bring in pagans as All Hallow’s Day, along with its eve, by the early Church. And others believe that Halloween began solely as a Christian holiday marking the vigil of All Hallow’s Day. This is not uncommon in Christianity and other religions and is probably best known with Christmas Eve.


A version of this appeared earlier on one of my other blogs, Why Name It That?

A Moveable Feast

robin eggs
Spring robin eggs

As with many holy days, “Easter” comes from pagan traditions. Anglo Saxons worshipped Eostre, the goddess of springtime and the return of the sun after the long winter. Eostre, in legend, once saved a bird whose wings had frozen during the winter by turning it into a rabbit. Because the rabbit had once been a bird, it could still lay eggs, and that rabbit evolved into the Easter rabbit/bunny.

Eggs had long been a symbol of fertility. In winter they were scarce, so their return in spring were part of the seasonal celebrations. People exchanged decorated eggs at this time as far back as the 11th century.

Easter Sunday, the Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead three days after his crucifixion, is a moveable feast. The date is based on the cycles of the moon. The New Testament says that Jesus was resurrected on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon of spring which places it as early as March 22nd and as late as April 25th.

The almanac also reminds me that today is the day in 1633 that Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. He supported the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun and not that Earth was the center of the universe. Galileo took a plea bargain and plead guilty to avoid imprisonment or execution. He was sentenced to an unlimited period of house arrest in his home in Florence. It only took 359 years (1992) for the Catholic Church to formally admit that Galileo’s views on the solar system are correct.

A Different Kind of Easter and Passover

Easter PassoverEaster this year is next Sunday, April 12.  Passover will begin on the evening of Wednesday, April 8 and ends the evening of April 16.  But both holidays will be celebrated differently this year in this time of staying at home and social distancing.

Gathering together and attending services in a church or temple are strongly discouraged and for good reasons. That doesn’t change individuals and confined family members in a household’s ability to continue their ceremonies.

Passover is the major Jewish spring festival which commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, lasting seven or eight days from the 15th day of Nisan, as told in the book of Exodus in the Bible.

The Synoptic Gospels present the Last Supper as a Passover meal but the Gospel of John makes no explicit mention that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. John presents the Jewish Passover feast as beginning in the evening a few hours after the death of Jesus.

There are certainly connections between the two holidays, though there are major differences too. Both holy days (which is where “holiday” originated) celebrate liberation and freedom of different kinds.  The Hebrew word for Passover is Pesach in Hebrew פסח and in French, Easter is the similar Paques.

Some early Christians marked Easter on the same day as Passover, regardless of the day of the week, while others followed the practice that Easter came on a Sunday, as it had for Jesus’ disciples.

Later this month, Ramadan in the United States will begin the evening of April 23 and end the evening of May 23. Perhaps, the situation will be better by that time. I’m sure members of all three religions will be praying for a swift end to the pandemic.