The meanings of Easter

Tasha Hall, Campus Life Reporter

What does it mean to celebrate Easter? Easter egg hunts, church sermons, singing hymns and kite flying — there are various traditions around the globe, and the holiday means different things to different people.

Easter Sunday as we know it has its roots in Christianity. While many practicing Christians fill out church pews on Easter Sunday, many people also celebrate the day in a more secular manner with games and Easter egg hunts. The holiday is a chance to focus on gratitude and family bonding.

Senior Shamiya Griffin identifies as a Christian. While she went on Easter egg hunts as a kid, in high school she began to engage with the more serious aspects of the holiday. 

“When I got older, I started helping my mom cook, really sitting down and listening more to the sermons and having my own opinion on it,” Griffin said. “As religious as I am, I have my own relationship with the way it is presented.” 

For Griffin, the holiday is in memory of the resurrection of Jesus, although she acknowledges that it is heavily commercialized by way of the candy and plush toys. This commercialization is not a new development, according to Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion and Classics Daniel Smith. Smith writes and teaches on the history of ancient Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire.

“It is possible to see something resembling ‘commercialization’ of Easter as early as the fourth century,” Smith said. “This era marked a significant turning point in Easter celebrations that corresponded with massive shifts in the status of Christians in the Roman Empire. The Roman emperor Constantine directed and funded the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, thought to be built upon [Jesus’s temporary tomb]. Jerusalem became a site of theological tourism for those who had the means to make the journey, and this no doubt included great sums of money, from the construction and maintenance of the sites to the costs associated with travel and lodging.”

Illustration by Alicia Buchter.

Smith also explained that the holiday has its origins in some of the earliest accounts from the followers of Jesus. The New Testament gospels — stories of Jesus’s life — tell of Jesus’s arrest, trial and crucifixion, followed by his resurrection from the dead.

“[Easter Sunday] commemorates annually this account of the resurrection of Jesus … Christians celebrated Easter annually well before days were fixed for other parts of the liturgical calendar like Christmas, Epiphany and so on,” Smith said.

In some places, Easter was celebrated with a pilgrimage. The churches in Jerusalem had become an important site for Christians to gather to worship and commemorate the events leading up to and following Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, his final teachings, his arrest and trial, his crucifixion and his resurrection. 

“Since the early medieval period, Christians have commemorated these events during Holy Week. [Christians have] provided multi-sensory rituals that walk participants through these moments and provide time for reflection, fasting, feasting and, in many traditions, the baptism of the church’s new members,” Smith said.

When it comes to celebrating Easter, some religious people are opposed to the secularization of the holiday. 

Sophomore Robenia Herbert comes from a Caribbean culture where people look forward to Easter egg hunts and kite flying on Easter. She described witnessing church members looking down upon such activities, arguing that they devalue the religious significance of the day. 

“[They think] we should really just be grateful for his sacrifice, what he has done and this is a day to celebrate him. That’s usually the root of the problem with it becoming about the bunny and the eggs because it’s just about you having fun and using this as an excuse to do something that you can do any other time,” Hebert said. 

Smith explained that each denomination of Christianity has a unique relationship to the holiday.

“Many Christians have historically considered Easter as a vindication of Jesus’s life and death: Paul of Tarsus, one of Jesus’s early followers, writes that Jesus emptied himself of his power and practiced an ethic of self-giving love, prioritizing others before himself; he was so obedient to this ethic that he followed it unto death,” Smith said. 

Ultimately, the holiday is a celebration of love, life and rebirth as we welcome warmer weather and longer days.