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Easter symbols and what they mean

Photo by Peter Rol, a photgrapher from the Netherlands

OVER THE Easter period there are numerous words and symbols that we hear and see, but what does it all mean?

Where are the origins of the Easter Egg, what does tenebrae mean and what happens on Ash Wednesday? Here is a simple explanation of a few of these things.

The name Easter comes from the pagan figure called Eastre (or Eostre) who was celebrated as the goddess of spring by the Saxons of Northern Europe. Her earthly symbol was the rabbit, which was also known as a symbol of fertility. Early Christians linked pagan and Jewish festivals (Easter being linked to Passover) to similar events in the Christian calendar. The festival of Eastre occurred at the same time of year as the observance of the Resurrection of Christ.

Shrove Tuesday
Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent begins (Ash Wednesday). It is a day of penitence, to clean the soul, and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent. On Shrove Tuesday early Christians would finish all the butter, eggs and sugar in the house before the beginning of lent. Of course, the best thing to make with those ingredients is pancakes!

It also gave way for the term Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday). These days Shrove Tuesday is commonly known as Pancake Day and in Australia is UnitingCare’s biggest event of the year raising thousands of dollars for charity.

Ash Wednesday
In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and the seventh Wednesday before Easter. Its name comes from the Old Testament practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of worshippers to symbolise repentance and mortality.

In the Orthodox Church, Lent begins on a Monday rather than on Ash Wednesday.

Lent is the period of time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Saturday. Traditionally Lent is a time of fasting for 40 days (not including Sundays) to symbolise patience, preparation for Easter and reflection. In 325, the Council of Nicaea discussed a 40-day Lenten season of fasting. It is unclear whether its original intent was just for new Christians preparing for Baptism, but it soon encompassed the whole Church.

Maundy Thursday
Also called Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter and commemorates the Last Supper. The four events commemorated on Maundy Thursday are the washing of the Disciples’ feet by Jesus, the Last Supper, the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the betrayal of Christ by Judas.

Up until the death of King James II, the English Monarch would wash the feet of selected poor people on Maundy Thursday.

The word Maundy, used only in this context, is generally explained as derived from the Latin word mandatum, which is the first word in the phrase “A new commandment I give unto you”.

The Latin word for shadows, the Tenebrae service was originally held on Good Friday but is now more commonly held on Maundy Thursday. It re-creates the emotional aspects of the passion story and is a solemn service of scriptural narratives interspersed with time for reflection often through the use of music.

During the service candles are extinguished to leave the congregation in darkness to await the one true light of Easter Sunday.

Easter eggs
The act of giving decorated eggs at the beginning of Spring has been celebrated for many years prior to Christianity adopting the symbol. Originally symbols of new life, in the Christian tradition eggs also represent the stone rolled away from the tomb of Jesus.

Polish folklore tells a story of the Virgin Mary giving eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She begged them to be less cruel and as she wept her tears fell on the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color.

Decorating and colouring eggs for Easter was the custom in England during the Middle Ages. In Royal households eggs were often covered in gold leaf.

Photo : Photo by Peter Rol, a photgrapher from the Netherlands