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Easter and its traditions

Apr 19, 2011 10:27:02 PM- transcurrents.com

By Saba-Thambi

An egg painted red given at the end of a Sunday school session was my first ever memory of Easter Sunday. I was highly excited and vividly remember taking extreme care of this possession on the half -hour walk back home. I don’t remember how I cooked the egg, but I remember to this day when my mother told me that the egg represents new life and hope for Christians indicating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. My mother also mentioned the western custom of exchanging chocolate Easter eggs on Easter Sundays. At the age of nine and living in Jaffna, I was amazed by the thought of a chocolate egg being the size of a chicken egg!

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the focal point of the Christian faith and is the oldest and most important festival of the Christian church. It is celebrated on a Sunday and is referred to as Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday is also called Resurrection Sunday and it translates to “uyirtheluntha Gnayiru” or “uyirtheluntha thiru-naal” in the Tamil Language.

The English word “Easter” (in old English, “ēastre”) is believed to be borrowed from the German origin, “ostern” and from a goddess named “Ēastre” associated with spring or dawn. It is noted that in the olden days it was customary to worship goddesses around the world particularly associated with spring & harvest. Hinduism also has female idols (pathini thevangal), Thurgai, Kali, Kannagi etc. Most of these ‘amman kovils’ are situated in the middle of a paddy field or in close proximity to fields indicating these kovils may well have been erected to celebrate the festivals of harvest.

Easter Sunday does not have a fixed day and falls on different dates each year thus referred to as the movable feast. Jewish Passover and Islamic Ramadan celebrations are also classified as movable feasts.

According to the New Testament1 Jesus was crucified on the cross and rose again on the third day around the time of Jewish Passover. Jewish Passover is calculated according to the phases of the moon (lunar Hebrew calendar). Muslims also follow the lunar phase waiting for the first sighting of the moon in the month of Ramadan. In contrast, Egyptians have a calendar following the Sun (a solar calendar). When the Romans became the ‘powerhouse’ of the world they followed the Egyptian calendar.

Early Jewish Christians followed a “Christian Passover” remembering the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus by linking it to the Hebrew Calendar. The non-Jewish Christians did not like this idea and they followed according to the solar calendar. This confused many among the early churches and each one was celebrating the resurrection of Jesus at various times of the year. The confusion was unified by the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (AD 285 – 337) who was the founder of Constantinople currently known as Istanbul. The Emperor formally recognised Christianity in AD 313.

Equinox is a time when the sun is directly over the earth’s equator and as a result divides equal lengths of day and night at all latitudes. In Tamil it’s called as “sama iravu kaalangal”. This event occurs twice a year, on the 21st March (spring or vernal) and 23rd of September (autumn). Emperor Constantine presided over the inaugural Christian council at Nicea (Turkey) in 325 AD and decreed that the Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon appears after the 21st of March each year. Therefore it’s calculated that Easter Sunday could fall at any time between March 21 and April 25 of each year. The system was slowly followed by western churches throughout the middle ages and is currently used in the standard calendar. This explains that some of the Easter celebration is overlapped with Tamil & Sinhala New year in April. However, the Eastern European orthodox churches follow the Julian calendar and have their Easter in a different week than the norm but it closely follows the current standard calendar by a week.

In recent years both governments and churches have tried to validate a fixed date for Easter Sunday. Secularists have suggested the second Sunday of April each year and the World Council of Churches suggested replacing the current equation-based system with direct astronomical observation. So Far nothing has eventuated.

Even though Easter is a joyous observance, it is a season celebrated after the gloomy darkness of lent followed by a holy week comprising Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The lent season indicates the fasting of Jesus and is the time for sacrifice and reflection. It starts on a Wednesday known as Ash Wednesday where the previous year’s palm crosses were burnt and the ashes worn as a cross on the forehead. Ash Wednesday is the day where Christian houses start their fasting period. Lenten sacrifices are personal choices. The most popular ones are, refraining from eating meat or breakfast and giving up alcohol for the season. Western custom is to eat fish on Fridays during the Lenten days. Children are also encouraged to sacrifice some activities or food dear to them such as chocolates, fizzy drinks or even to give up viewing television or movies. Nowadays some have gone to the length of giving up time on social networking sites (face book or twitter). Some denominations conduct Lenten bible studies to reflect the life of Jesus Christ. Christian weddings are overlooked during this solemn season.

Holy week follows the 40 days of lent starting on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday celebrates the majestic entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem on a Donkey. He was welcomed by the young and old waving palm branches and chanting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” Palm Sunday service is an exciting service for the children as they join the church procession waving the palm leaves. In Jaffna, the young creamy coconut palm leaves, not yet exposed to the sun (kurutholai) are used to make the palm crosses thus referred to as “Kurutholai Gnayiru” in Tamil. The palm crosses are blessed at the service and distributed to the members. The members keep these crosses in special places in their homes or distribute them to their relatives, especially to the sick and the elderly. A well known Tamil lyric taught to Sunday school children during the Palm Sunday service includes “osanna paaduvom yesuvin thasare”, “thavithin kumaranukku unnathathil ossanah”.


Palm crosses, photos: JJ

Churches organise activities depicting the passion of the Christ leading up to his crucifixion. The Catholic churches around the world organise A Passion Play in open air parks and theatres. A passion play is a dramatic presentation illustrating the Passion of Christ: his trial, suffering and death.

The St. Patrick’s college grounds are a well known venue in Jaffna for passion plays and people gather in droves to watch the play irrespective of their faith or religion. Forty years ago in April 1971 a passion play was held at the foreground of the Jaffna fort. The Pageants were cleverly created between the fortresses. This was the year JVP were plotting a coup against the government and were forcibly taking over the police stations around the Island. The Jaffna police station and a Prison were also situated on the grounds of the fort and due to the passion play; the plans of the insurgency were foiled.

The internationally renowned “Passion play of Oberammergau” is performed every ten years in the German Alps. It has been continued for more than 360 years to date and has become a multimillion dollar enterprise which originally started with a miracle and a vow taken by the villagers during the black Plague.

In 2004 Mel Gibson directed a film “The Passion of the Christ” and was released during the Lenten season. The film depicted the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life beginning with the agony of Jesus at the garden. This film was viewed by many and Gibson pocketed more than 600 millions. A Tamil Catholic song ‘Kelungal tharapadum, thattungal thirakapadum...” 3describes the life story of Jesus and is a favourite number for this season among Tamils.

Maundy Thursday institutes the ceremony of the washing of the feet indicating Jesus’ humility of washing his disciples’ feet. This is the night where Jesus held his final meal with his 12 disciples described as the Last supper.

This feast initiated the Holy Communion service where bread & wine are shared. The last supper has been a
favourite theme for the Christian art. A popular 15th century mural4 of Leonardo da Vinci is a precious possession of the world. It is at Santa-Maria-grazie church in Milan, Italy and represents the scene according to one of the Gospel 2 in the New Testament. A decade ago this mural was a “hot-topic” relating to a fiction “The Davinci Code.” written by Dan Brown.

Good Friday reflects the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross by the Roman army. This is the most solemn day of the Christian calendar. Most of the church sanctuaries (altar) look empty with a single cross. No flowers will be seen on the sanctuary. The day provides an opportunity for the reflection and contemplation of his life. Each denomination has a different way of reflecting the sombre day. Methodist Churches in Jaffna conduct 3 hour services consisting of two sermons. Some denominations do not share the Holy Communion on this day. Church goers tend to wear black or white attire to mark the mourning. Good Friday has become a public holiday in the entire Christian countries calendar and most of the shops, pubs and the casinos are closed as a mark of respect.

Different cultures have different meals on this day. Fish is cooked for the family meal in Western cultures whereas a vegetarian meal, sambar or egg based meal is served in Jaffna Christian households. Hot cross buns are served on the mornings of Good Fridays, a tradition which originated in England. They are eaten hot or toasted with the cross standing as the symbol of crucifixion. The Nursery Rhyme “Hot cross bun” initially was used as a street cry by the vendors in England and has become a popular rhyme around the world. The commercialisation of Easter festivities means that the buns are marketed well before the Lenten period. Business entrepreneurs have taken the “buns” to a higher notch by making it with chocolates nowadays.

The Nursery Rhyme:

Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
One a penny two a penny - Hot cross buns
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons
One a penny two a penny - Hot cross buns

During the season a rough cut wooden cross is often kept at the altar or outside the churches. Various sizes of crosses are used for this purpose and some are 6 to 7 feet high. Three metal nails are driven into wood at the palms & feet of the cross and a crown is made of thorny vines and an inscription “INRI” is written at the top of the cross. The cross is draped in purple during Lenten followed by red on Palm Sunday; black on Good Friday provides a graphic visual sign of the Lenten journey.

Easter vigil was observed by the early Christians on Easter Sunday. Catholic churches observe the midnight mass and the protestants observe as Easter Sun rise service to reflect the expression of hope and new life. Easter carries the colour white with gold/yellow symbolising hope of the new life and the altars are decorated with flowers especially with white Easter lilies. Depending on the weather some dawn services are conducted outdoors.

The traditional way of celebrating Easter among the Protestants and evangelicals is the Easter musical Cantata or Bajanai consisting of special music and songs. Easter Bajans are a popular session among the Tamil Christians. Many traditional Tamil lyrics are sung in the Bajans at the churches and in the open-air theatres. The Easter service marks the end of the fasting period. Families gather together in their homes to celebrate an Easter feast after the Service. Every year a traditional Easter blessing is delivered by the Pope, the head of Catholicism to a packed St Peter’s Square in Rome and to all Catholics around the world.


Sanctuary at the Noranda Anglican Church, WA, Australia. Palm Sunday ~ Apr 17, 2011 (photo by JJ)


Easter eggs and Easter bunnies are the other features relating to Easter. These symbols have spawned extensive debate in relation to the origin of some customs used in Easter celebrations. Some argue that Easter is a little more than an adaptation of a pagan fertility festival and has little to do with Christian tradition. There is no doubt that many signs and symbols have been adopted from various cultures. Egg represents new life and the rabbit is reminder of spring and is believed to be the favourite animal of goddess Eastre. Early Easter eggs originated from Germany as goose or duck eggs. Hard-boiled eggs are also used as gifts and nowadays artificial chocolate eggs are popular.

Intricately patterned Easter eggs (pysanky) are popular among the Ukrainian populations. Children eagerly anticipate an Easter egg hunt on Easter Mornings. Nowadays Easter eggs and its clones are a big market in affluent society similar to the hot cross buns.

An unexpected surprise product attached to the computer software or DVD in Microsoft’s early products is also referred to as hidden Easter eggs. However, Microsoft formally stopped including the Easter eggs in 2002.

An Island is also named after the Easter. Admiral Roggeveen who discovered the Island on an Easter day in 1722 named it Easter Island. Is also known as Rapa nui in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Easter Island is well known for its monolithic stone statues of human form..


1 Gospel of Luke Chapters 22-24

2 Gospel of John 13:21

3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OQ54MRkdcU

4 http://milan.arounder.com/en/churches/santa-maria-delle-grazie-church/the-last-supper-leonardo-da-vinci.html