Strange Easter Questions You May Not Have Thought to Ask

Happy Easter image from 365 Things To Do In Austin

Happy Easter, Cat Flaggers! I hope you are enjoying the candies in your Easter basket. Are you visiting family and having a big old ham feast? Maybe you had an Easter egg hunt?

While Easter is certainly a fun holiday to celebrate, it is also a really strange holiday if you think about it. Why is it that this holiday falls on different days every year? Where did a Christian festival celebrating Jesus’s resurrection get such a weird name? How did it come to be linked to eggs, baskets, and the idea of a magic rabbit? Well, today Cat Flag has the answers for you!

Easter’s migration around the calendar

Calendar image from Madison Metropolitan School District

This year, Easter falls on April 20th. Last year, it was March 31st. Next year, it will be April 5th. Why does this holiday keep changing its date? It’s not like Christmas migrates every year – Santa comes around on December 25th each and every year!

Thank the First Council of Nicaea for this oddity.

Yeah, thanks a lot, guys.

Yeah, thanks a lot, guys.

Our story begins with the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who converted to Christianity and started to make it the official religion of his empire, replacing the polytheistic religion the Romans had practiced for centuries. However, he soon found there was a problem with this plan. Even in the fourth century AD, the Christian church was divided into a variety of competing movements with competing doctrines and beliefs, each accusing the others of heresy. In 325 AD, Constantine called the major Christian leaders from across his empire together to settle these disputes once and for all.

A quick search in the Yellow Pages for churches will tell you how well that plan worked out.

Still, the Council’s decisions laid the foundation for what we might call “modern Christianity”, declaring the Nicene Creed that almost all Christian churches accept today. It was also the Council of Nicaea that set the rules for when we celebrate Easter.

Originally, the celebration of Easter was based on the Jewish calendar, a calendar that is used to determine the dates of important Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and Hanukkah. According to the Bible, the death and resurrection of Jesus took place during Passover. It made sense, then, for Christians to celebrate Easter while Jews celebrated Passover. However, many Christians were unsatisfied with this arrangement, and argued that Christians should break from the Jewish tradition and set their own date.

The Council of Nicaea reached a compromise: they declared that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring. This still keeps Easter celebrations sometime kind-of-around-the-Passover-season-sort-of, but satisfied the demand that the date should be based on Christianity’s own rules. Under these rules, Easter will always fall somewhere between March 22 and April 25.

Of course, in the centuries since that agreement, a new argument over Easter’s correct date has arisen. Back when the Council of Nicaea made its decision, they were using the Julian calendar – a calendar the ancient Romans had used and that was used throughout Europe during the middle ages. Then in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, the calendar we all use today. The reason for the change has to do with leap years and keeping the seasons lining up; you can watch this video for a more detailed explanation.

Naturally, when everyone switched over to the new calendar, they used the new calendar to calculate when to celebrate Easter. Except for the Eastern Orthodox churches, that is. The Eastern Orthodox churches never accepted the new calendar (“Who does the Pope think he is, telling us to change our calendars, anyway?”), so they still use the Julian calendar to calculate when to celebrate Easter. That’s why calendars usually list one date as “Easter” and another as “Orthodox Easter”. Sometimes the two dates line up, but sometimes they don’t.

Because we couldn’t possibly let something be simple, could we?

The name “Easter”

No, it's not named after the island. It's the other way around, guys.

No, it’s not named after the island. It’s the other way around, guys.

Why is it that a day that honors one of the most important beliefs in Christianity has such a strange name? Why isn’t it called something like “Resurrection Day”? For that matter, as mentioned above, the celebration was originally based on Passover. Why isn’t it called “Christian Passover”?

Actually, in other languages, it is. Many languages use a name that derives from the Hebrew for Passover, “Pesach”. Greeks call the day “Pascha”, Spanish-speakers call it “Pascua”, and the Dutch call it “Pasen”. It’s just English that is the oddball.

Not the only thing about English that is weird.

Not the only thing about English that is weird.

The English name actually has nothing to do with Jesus or Passover. It comes from the name of a pre-Christian pagan goddess – Ēostre, goddess of spring and the dawn. She was a deity worshipped by various northern Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxon ancestors of the modern English people. In fact, according to ancient accounts, the Anglo-Saxons spent a whole month celebrating in her honor.

When the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, the celebration of Ēostre just so happened to fall right around the same time as the Christian celebration of Jesus’s resurrection, so they kept the old name for the new holiday – Easter.

Easter eggs, Easter baskets, and the Easter bunny

Easter bunny image from Connecticut Working Moms

Okay, so that explains the name, but how did such an important religious holiday come to be associated with such non-religious myths about magic rabbits who hide decorated eggs and bring baskets full of candy for children? That’s all pretty bizarre, right?

Not quite as bizarre as you might think. Let’s start with Easter eggs. Eggs have been a known symbol of springtime and fertility for thousands of years, with many ancient civilizations from the Egyptians to the Romans making use of eggs in their springtime ceremonies. It was Christianity, though, that made the link between eggs and Easter, albeit by accident. In the Middle Ages, it was forbidden to eat eggs during Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Medieval peasants would hard-boil any eggs their chickens laid during Lent to preserve them, and then would celebrate the coming of Easter by eating the stored-up eggs.

As for that Easter bunny, he traces his origins to German folklore. Originally, he was a Santa-like figure, rewarding well-behaved children and punishing those who misbehaved. Specifically, children were told to make little nests in their hats for the Easter bunny. If they had been good, the bunny would leave them eggs. This tradition was brought to the United States by German settlers and immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the great American melting pot absorbed it.

So, how did those hat-nests transform into baskets? Trick question; the baskets are actually the far older tradition. In the ancient Middle East, when it came time to plant the new crops for the spring, they would put the seedlings in baskets to their local temple and ask for a blessing. The hope was that the gods would give them a bountiful harvest. This tradition was picked up by the ancient Israelites, who in turn gave it to early Christians. In medieval Europe, it was the peasants’ Easter meal that was brought via basket into the local church for a blessing, formally signifying the end of Lent.

In essence, the bunny-eggs-basket combo is just another case of the American melting pot at work, grabbing a little bit of this tradition and that tradition and blending them into a whole new tradition.

Captain America: The Pretty Good Sequel

Captain America image from MTV

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the kind of movie that is hard to review. Overall, it is a really good movie, but it has some problems that are impossible to ignore. While I don’t want to sound like a “negative Nancy” about a movie I thoroughly enjoyed, to make this an honest review I have to discuss where this movie fails. So that’s what I’m going to do, but just to be clear from the outset: I liked this movie, and give it an 8 out of 10.

The Winter Soldier is part of the long-running series of Marvel movies that I’ve been following and reviewing for quite some time. It follows Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), recently unfrozen after being trapped in ice since World War II, trying to adjust to the 21st century. He has decided to work for S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel universe’s biggest and most powerful top-secret spy agency tasked with keeping the world safe from its most dangerous enemies. However, Rogers is having second thoughts about whether he has made the right decision, and is staring to suspect that his new employer may be up to no good. That’s when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director, is attacked by The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a seemingly unstoppable assassin. As Rogers tries to figure out who sent The Winter Soldier to attack Fury and why, he uncovers some dark secrets and is forced to fight some of his former comrades on his path to the truth.

This is where the first major problem with this movie lies. While it is suspenseful, thrilling, action-packed and fun to watch, I just couldn’t escape a little disappointment with the “big reveal” and the way the plot unfolded. The trailers and promotional materials for this movie promised a “political thriller”, where you couldn’t tell who the good guys and bad guys are. Frankly, that’s a lie. As it turns out, who the good guys and bad guys are gets sorted out fairly early on, and the reveal is depressingly predictable. This is a movie that is begging for its characters to exist in shades of grey, with Captain America having to choose between his values as both sides have equally valid points. Instead, we get a clear-cut, black-and-white story with an unrealistic villain.

It would have fit in better in a 1960s cartoon.

The villains would have fit in better in a 1960s cartoon.

This brings me to the second problem: the film’s not-so-subtle political message. Films with political messages have a very long and storied tradition in Hollywood, but not everybody appreciates them. After all, what if you don’t agree with the message being presented, or simply don’t want any politics messing with your enjoyment of the movie? Even if you are perfectly fine with these sorts of message-movies, there are some that handle their subject better than others. Did you notice the subtext about intellectual property rights in the first two Iron Man films? If you think about it, Tony Stark spends most of these films trying to keep the government and copycat inventors from stealing and copying his work. However, these films approached their subject in a smart way – highlighting that Stark isn’t completely “in the right” on this issue and pointing out that the characters all have their own, equally legitimate perspectives.

Captain America’s movie doesn’t do that. The Winter Soldier comments on the ways that technology has eroded everyone’s privacy in the past decade. Instead of presenting this in a multifaceted way as the Iron Man films had, TWS clearly takes a side and makes the other side out to be either evil or duped by the evil characters. No wonder Robert Redford (All the President’s Men, Lions for Lambs) signed up to play a role.

On top of those problems, the movie sets up some forced romantic tension between our hero and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and it just doesn’t work. The two actors do not have the right on-screen chemistry to pull this off, on top of the fact that they are both playing no-nonsense characters who are more concerned with the mission than with relationships. Besides, I thought The Avengers (and the comics) pretty firmly established that Black Widow was Hawkeye’s girlfriend. Where is he in all of this?

"Wait, my girl did what? With who?"

“Wait, my girl did what? With who?”

All right, enough griping about this movie’s flaws. For everything this movie did wrong, at the end of the day, it did much more right.

The action was well-done as always, and the special effects were as breathtaking as you’ve come to expect from the franchise. Marvel still cleans house when it comes to how awesome their films look, if nothing else.

I liked that this movie goes into Nick Fury’s past, so we get to see more facets of his character than just “tough boss man”. He appears more human in this film than in any of his other appearances, as we start to learn why he is the way he is. Up until now, we have only seen him cool and in charge, but for the first time we get to see him in a place where he is truly vulnerable.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Falcon (Anthony Mackie), whose relationship with Steve Rogers is probably the best part of the movie. A veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan (it isn’t made completely clear) who lost a friend in battle, he is able to relate to Captain America through their shared experiences of war, service in the name of freedom, and personal loss and sacrifice. Their spontaneous camaraderie feels natural, and makes sense both logically and emotionally.

The star of the show, of course, is the title character. Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier shows just how much range the actor has. It was really impressive just how much emotion the man can convey without having to say a word. I think the Winter Soldier only had about five lines in the entire movie – everything else was conveyed with his face and body language. Yet he managed to capture the essence of the character, and his inner torment, so wonderfully that you could really feel his pain.

I’m happy with The Winter Soldier, and I think it is a welcome addition to the Marvel movie universe. Even so, I can’t help but feel it could have been better. After watching Thor: The Dark World and finding that movie to be virtually flawless, it feels like Marvel’s latest entry is just a tiny bit disappointing at the end of the day. Not enough to stop me from buying it when it comes out on DVD, but maybe enough to suggest caution before deciding to see it in theaters.