We’ve just got over the festive season shenanigans, and soon the ubiquitous Valentine’s hearts will be taken down, but just when you think it’s safe to go back to the mall, the bunnies and Easter eggs take over. It’s time to cut and run. Plan to go somewhere awesome for that Easter break.
A movable feast indeed
According to tradition, Christ was crucified at Passover, which is worked out on the Hebrew calendar, and can fall any time between 27 March and 25 April. Using a different calendar, but aiming for a time close to Passover, the early church decided that the anniversary of Christ’s resurrection would be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the boreal vernal equinox, so it can fall any day between 22 March and 26 April. Because the Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, for them Easter falls any time between 4 April and 8 May. Early Christians found that their celebrations sometimes coincided with the existing pagan spring celebration of Ostara, so they co-opted many of the traditions, and even the name, which became Easter. So that’s why Christ’s crucifixion is associated with eggs and bunnies, and also why – just like snow at Christmas – we have all that spring symbolism for our autumn Easter celebrations. That’s probably why the bunnies are hot – and cross – and, yes, there are some wacky stories about why they lay eggs, but they are apocryphal.
This year, Pesach (19 to 27 April) coincides with both the Western (19 to 22 April) and Eastern Orthodox (26 to 29 April) Easter weekend.
Some years Easter and the equinox are close together but this year they are not, so, if you want to celebrate the equinox as opposed to Pesach or Christ’s crucifixion, you will have to do so in March.
Wiccans take the Ostara celebrations very seriously, seeing it as a time of renewal, and the end of winter. There are festivals in many parts of Europe, the best known being at Stonehenge and Avebury, but Wiccans celebrate at holy sites all over Britain and Europe. The festivals tend to focus on the concept of balance and renewal, and are associated with – who would have guessed – rabbits (or hares), eggs and other foods, like sprouts and asparagus, that symbolise renewal and spring.
It’s almost too on-the-nose but the pun is irresistible, and – hey – any excuse to visit one of the most astonishing destinations in the world. Easter Island – more correctly Rapa Nui – has nothing to do with the Christian tradition of Easter except that it was on Easter Sunday 1722 when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen ‘discovered’ it. It’s best known for the astonishing sculpted heads that dot the island’s perimeter, and it’s an interesting lesson in how destructive religion can be when it’s followed blindly with no thought to logic, sustainability, or even survival. No Easter eggs, but lots of food for thought.
Go somewhere eggsotic?
Sure, you can pick up some prettily wrapped yummy choccy eggs in Woolies, but if you want to see real Easter eggs, Eastern Europe is your best bet. Easter egg painting is an absolute art form in Romania and many other Eastern European countries like Croatia and Ukraine – actually, almost anywhere with a strong Eastern Orthodox tradition. But, for the most over-the-top Easter eggs of all, nothing can beat the Fabergé Museum, where you can see nine of the 43 known remaining Fabergé eggs.
Go on a pilgrimage
While chocolate eggs are fun, hot cross buns are yummy, and pink bunnies are cute, Easter is the holiest day of the Christian calendar, and many people consider it a time of worship – and perhaps pilgrimage. Spending Easter in Jerusalem, and walking the Via Dolorosa – the route believed to be that taken by Christ to his crucifixion – is a deeply meaningful experience for Christians. Israel is also a great place to spend Pesach.
And – especially, but not exclusively, for Catholics – Easter Mass in St Peter’s Square in Rome can be particularly meaningful. It’s an opportunity to hear the Pope, and the Stations of the Cross parade on Good Friday is spectacular.
Geographically closer to home – but truly exotic – Lalibela in Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian communities, and celebrating Easter in and around its spectacular rock-hewn churches is a deeply spiritual experience. NOTE: Ethiopia – like the Eastern Orthodox Church – also uses the Julian calendar, so Easter Sunday this year is on 28 April.
Even closer to home, the Easter celebration at Zion City at Moria in Limpopo province draws in excess of a million worshippers. If you are a ZCC member, you will already know this, and if you are not, this information is useful only as a warning to stay off the N1 over Easter as the traffic is hectic beyond imagining.
Possibly one of the world’s greatest Easter experiences is the Passion Play in Oberammergau in Germany. Performed every ten years – start planning for 2020 – it’s the largest am-dram event in the world, and the longest-running production on earth. Its 388- year history makes The Mousetrap’s 65-year run in London look like a flash in the pan (although, to be fair, The Mousetrap plays every day). Performed as the fulfilment of a vow made to God in 1633, the play is a labour of love and devotion that involves more than half the town’s population.
Party party party
Easter is a celebration, so it can be a bit of a party, but – in some places – it’s a serious party. Coming at the end of Lent, it’s the corresponding celebration to Mardi Gras at the beginning. In Seville in Spain, the holy week of Easter is marked by lots of parades with spectacular floats and somewhat spooky penitents, and lots of food, drink, music and dancing – but also some church time for the devout.
New Orleans is possibly the best party town in the world, and it has an interesting tradition of Catholicism mixed with a bit of voodoo and other things, so it’s not surprising that this is the place in the USA to party. It’s also one of the few places where Easter celebrations include a gay parade.
But, hey, we all know that Mardi Gras is best celebrated in Rio, so, hardly surprisingly, after the ‘thin 40 days’, the Cariocas (citizens of Rio) come out and party big time over Easter – and then hit the beach.
A new beginning
In the northern hemisphere, the vernal (or spring) equinox marks a new beginning – the end of ‘a long, cold, lonely winter,’ as the Beatles sing. So, if you would rather celebrate the equinox than Easter or Pesach, plan your holiday for March – the equinox will be on the 20th. Fortuitously, the 21st (Human Rights Day) is a holiday, so you can sneak some time out, and it’s in school holidays for most of us. There are so many ways you can celebrate. In parts of the Middle East, e.g. Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Turkey, the boreal vernal equinox is celebrated in the Zoroastrian festival of Nowruz, which signals the start of a new year. Celebrations include festive countryside picnics featuring foods that symbolise new beginnings (eggs, wheat grass), bonfires are lit to banish the darkness of winter, people spring-clean their houses, wear new clothes, and gather flowers to celebrate the coming of the new year and the ‘return of the sun’.
In Poland, Marzanna – the Ice Queen – is symbolically killed as a celebration that winter is over.
In Japan it is traditional to visit the graves of ancestors and relatives, tidy them up, replace the flowers, burn incense and generally celebrate life (in the presence of the dead).
In Mexico, celebrants gather at Chichén Itzá to watch as the rising sun creates the illusion of a dancing snake on the side of the pyramid that forms the Temple of Kukulcan.
And – as if you needed any more assurance of the significance of this date – at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the sun rises directly over the middle of the largest temple.
Easter, eggs, renewal, fertility, bunnies and spring symbolisms are so colonial. We have our own megalithic traditions in southern Africa, even if they are not as well understood as the northern hemisphere ones, and here it is not spring, it’s autumn, so perhaps it’s time to create our own traditions. It requires an open mind and a spirit of adventure, but you can celebrate the autumn equinox close to home by visiting some local stone circles – less well known than the northern hemisphere ones, but equally fascinating. sacredsites.co.za
Or just chill
Probably the best idea of all – head for the hills or go to the bush. If you’re thinking of Kruger, the north is quieter, but avoid the N1 over Easter. Another option is to paddle the Orange River – lots of people do it, but the operators deliberately spread out so it’s not too crowded. Or do a staycation, play golf, go for long walks and spend time with the family, and – most importantly – avoid the national road snarl-up.