What is Easter? Meaning and Holiday Celebrations Explained

BST Editorial Staff
What is Easter? Meaning and Holiday Celebrations Explained

What is Easter?

Easter is a Christian religious holiday, also known as a feast day, that celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, as described in the New Testament of the Bible. It is considered the most important and oldest festival of the Christian Church. Easter is preceded by the season of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting, prayer, and penance.

The exact date of Easter varies each year because it is based on the lunar calendar. It generally falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, which is around March 21. As a result, Easter can occur between March 22 and April 25.

In addition to its religious significance, Easter has also become associated with various secular traditions and customs. These include the Easter bunny, egg decorating, egg hunts, and the giving of Easter baskets filled with candy and gifts. These traditions are often observed by people of various religious and cultural backgrounds, making Easter a widely celebrated and recognized holiday in many parts of the world.

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The Meaning of Easter

So what is Easter? And why do Christians place such a high importance on this holiday?

Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the tomb, occurring three days after His crucifixion. It fulfills the prophecy of the Messiah's persecution, death for our sins, and resurrection, as foretold in Isaiah 53. This event serves as a reminder of our victory over sin and a source of daily hope. According to the New Testament, Easter falls three days after Jesus' crucifixion, following a period of fasting known as Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Good Friday, the day of Jesus' death. Pope Gregory I established the 40-day duration of Lent, drawing inspiration from the biblical accounts of Israel, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus' time in the wilderness.

After Christians spend time in reflection during the 40 days of Lent, we remember the event that shook the whole world. That our Lord conquered death. The Old Testament prophesied about this event hundreds of times, hundreds to thousands of years prior to the Resurrection. It’s not just a big deal. It’s the biggest deal in all of Christianity.

The Easter story, as recounted in all four Gospels of the New Testament, begins with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, His burial, and culminates in His resurrection from the dead. In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus is crucified by the Roman authorities at the instigation of religious leaders. He is then buried in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. On the third day after His death, women visit the tomb and find it empty, with angels announcing Jesus' resurrection. They encounter Jesus alive, who then appears to His disciples, providing them with evidence of His resurrection before ascending into heaven. This miraculous event confirms Jesus' identity as the Son of God and the fulfillment of prophecies regarding the Messiah.

Easter is one of the most important holidays in the Christian calendar. It commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe was sent to Earth to offer salvation from sin.

For many, Easter is also a time to reflect on the meaning of life and the power of love and forgiveness. Through the symbolism of Easter, Christians are reminded that no matter how dark things may seem, there is always hope in the power of resurrection and new beginnings.

Why do Christians Celebrate Easter?

Easter marks the triumphant victory of Jesus Christ over death and the grave, demonstrating His power to conquer sin and offer eternal life to all who believe in Him. We celebrate Easter because not only did our Lord conquer death, but without the Resurrection, we have no foundation for our faith.

1 Corinthians 15:13-15 says, If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.

In other words, Christianity has no point if the Resurrection didn’t happen. Christians would’ve been martyred for nothing and placed their faith in false hope.

Thankfully, the Resurrection did occur, and for those reasons, we have immense hope and assurance. It is through the Resurrection that we find assurance of our redemption and the promise of new life in Christ. Furthermore, the Resurrection validates Jesus' identity as the Son of God and confirms His authority to grant forgiveness of sins and reconcile humanity with God. Therefore, Easter is not merely a celebration of an event in history, but a proclamation of the foundational truth that shapes our entire faith journey and offers hope for the future.

The History of Easter

Some people have suggested that Easter has some pagan origins. It gets muddled depending on which theologian you ask. Some have said that the pagan roots of the holiday date back to Babylon:

“According to an ancient “Sumerian legend of Damuzi (Tammuz) and his wife Inanna (Ishtar), [...] Tammuz dies, Ishtar is grief–stricken and follows him to the underworld.” Here, “‘naked and bowed low’ she is judged, killed, and then hung on display. In her absence, the earth loses its fertility, crops cease to grow, and animals stop reproducing. Unless something is done, all life on earth will end.” —Candice Lucey

Others have said that the church, wanting to win the trust of their pagan neighbors still, created a holiday that happened to fall around the time of a similar pagan festival (one that perhaps involved a certain bunny).

Christians cannot deny that, at the very least, pagan practices have infiltrated the holiday, from dyeing eggs to tales about the Easter bunny.

Nevertheless, when we celebrate what some believers like to call Resurrection Sunday, we celebrate Jesus' resurrection.

Why Is Easter Called "Easter"?

The term "Easter" is believed to have originated from the Old English word "Ēastre" or "Ēostre," which refers to a pagan festival celebrating the goddess of spring and fertility. Over time, as Christianity spread throughout Europe, the celebration of Easter became associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian holiday of Easter coincided with the timing of the pagan festival, and as a result, the name "Easter" was retained for the Christian observance. 

Recent scholars haven’t been able to find any reference to the goddess Bede mentioned and consider the theory discredited. Another probability is the Norse eostur, eastur, or Ostara, which meant “the season of the growing sun” or “the season of new birth.” 

The word east comes from the same roots. In this case, easter would be linked to the changing of the season. A more recent and complex explanation comes from the Christian background of Easter rather than the pagan. The early Latin name for the week of Easter was hebdomada alba or “white week,” while the Sunday after Easter day was called Dominica in albis from the white robes of those who had been newly baptized. The word alba is Latin, both for white and dawn.  People speaking Old High German made a mistake in their translation and used a plural word for dawn, ostarun, instead of a plural for white. From ostarun we get the German Ostern and the English Easter.”

When Is Easter Celebrated?

Easter always falls on the Sunday of Passion Week, with the holidays of Holy Saturday and Good Friday preceding the holiday. This year, Easter will be on Sunday, March 31st, 2024.

We’ve also outlined when Easter will fall for the next few years.

  • Sunday, April 20, 2025
  • Sunday, April 5, 2026
  • Sunday, March 28, 2027
  • Sunday, April 16, 2028

Learn more about when is Easter and how the day is determined each year.

The Connection of Passover and Easter

The connection between Passover and Easter lies in their shared theological significance and historical context. Passover, celebrated by Jews, commemorates the Israelites' liberation from slavery in Egypt as recounted in the Book of Exodus. It involves rituals such as the Seder meal, the retelling of the Exodus story, and the consumption of unleavened bread (matzah).

Easter falls around the same time as Passover and is often linked to the Jewish festival due to the Last Supper, which Jesus shared with His disciples before His crucifixion, being identified as a Passover meal. During this meal, Jesus instated Communion by referring to the bread as his body and the cup of wine as his blood. The coming events of Jesus' death and resurrection would fulfill the deeper spiritual meaning of Passover, symbolizing liberation from sin and death through Jesus' sacrifice.

Religious and Secular Easter Traditions

Easter is typically observed by attending church services, exchanging gifts, and enjoying feasts with family and friends. There are many different religious and secular traditions surrounding the celebration of Easter. Here are some of the most popular:

  1. Attending church services: Many Christians attend special church services on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  2. Easter egg hunts: Children often participate in Easter egg hunts, where decorated eggs, candy, or small toys are hidden for them to find.
  3. Decorating eggs: Decorating eggs is a common Easter tradition, with families and communities often dyeing, painting, or decorating eggs in various creative ways.
  4. Easter baskets: Children receive Easter baskets filled with treats, toys, and other goodies from the Easter Bunny.
  5. Easter brunch or dinner: Families and friends often gather for a special meal on Easter Sunday, which may include traditional dishes such as ham, lamb, or Easter bread. Lamb is a traditional Easter dish in many Christian traditions because it symbolizes Jesus Christ as the "Lamb of God" who sacrificed Himself for the redemption of humanity. In the Old Testament, the Passover lamb was sacrificed and eaten during the Passover feast, and Christians see parallels between the Passover lamb and Jesus' sacrificial death.
  6. Easter bonnets: Wearing Easter bonnets or hats adorned with flowers, ribbons, or other decorations is a tradition in some places.
  7. Giving Easter gifts: In addition to Easter baskets, some people exchange gifts with loved ones on Easter Sunday.
  8. Lighting Easter candles: Lighting candles during Easter services symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the triumph of light over darkness.
  9. Planting Easter flowers: Some people plant flowers such as lilies, tulips, or daffodils as a symbol of new life and rebirth on Easter.

Prayers to Celebrate Easter

Dear Lord, I want to let Your Truth sink deep down into my heart and soul today. Help me stay focused on You. And I pray for the many who will understand for the first time this Easter Sunday that You are risen. Wash over every soul with fresh hope and overwhelming joy. Bring new life as only You can. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” —Lysa Terkeurst

Dear Lord, help me to tell of Your wondrous power and mighty acts to those generations that come after me. May I not let the season pass by without pondering the real meaning of Easter. In Jesus' Name, Amen.” —Karen Ehman

Dear God, please allow me to encounter the overcoming power and redemptive love of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Thank You for planning the ultimate plot twist that allows me to experience an abundant life and eternal blessings through the work of Your Son. I am so very grateful! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” —Kathy Crabtree

“Father, I thank You for the miracle of life – abundant life here and eternal life with You in Heaven. Help me celebrate that life every day as I seek You and follow Your plan for my life. Today, I say with the Apostle Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Amen.” —Mary Southerland

“Dear Lord, You are amazing! Thank you for offering forgiveness and mercy through the great exchange of Jesus. It is a miracle that I can come to You with a heart that is pure. Your love is extravagant and I cannot say thank you enough. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” —Gwen Smith

Find more Easter Prayers to celebrate and give thanks to God!

Further Reading

What Is the True Meaning of Easter? Why Is it Celebrated?

What Is Easter: Understanding the History and Symbols

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/ijeab