Ancient traditions still influence Easter


Christians journeying through Holy Week may be surprised to learn how some Easter traditions have evolved over the centuries.

How did Easter get its name? Why are baptisms often included in services that day? What is the significance of wearing new clothes on Easter Sunday?

It was not until the eighth century A.D. that Christians started using the word “Easter” to describe a day set aside to celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection. The name originally had been used in reference to a festival honoring Eastre, the Teutonic goddess of light and spring – whose symbol, by the way, was an egg.

“In the early period, and even still today, it could be argued that Easter was the most important day on the church calendar,” said the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

And like modern times, Easter wasn’t just another day.

“There was the celebration of the Resurrection, beginning with an all-night Great Vigil,” Burton-Edwards said. The vigil continued until the early-morning baptisms and culminated with a celebration of communion, with those newly baptized receiving first.

Easter baptisms common

Baptisms have been a part of Easter since at least the second century, he noted. Even today, Easter is the primary day for baptisms in the Christian year. At some point, it may have been the only day for them.

“What we know from this early period,” Burton-Edwards said, “is that in some places, persons would have been baptized early in the morning, naked, and then clothed in a white robe — a parallel to the white-robed martyrs who appear in Revelation, and a sign of both purity and resurrection.”

White is the color most associated with the Resurrection of Christ and the Sundays of Easter through Pentecost, he added.

“The association (of Easter) with baptism is ancient,” Burton-Edwards said, “and is deeply connected with the development of Lent as a full 40 days by the fourth century as a final period of special and more intense preparation of candidates for baptism.

“Their overall candidacy period (called the ‘catechumenate’) would have typically lasted at least three years. Lent was the ‘homestretch’ of this time,” he continued.

New clothes

Traditionally, families have donned their best spring clothes for Easter Sunday. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of Harry Leake.
Traditionally, families have donned their best spring clothes for Easter Sunday. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of Harry Leake.

The Rev. Safiyah Fosua, who directs transformational preaching ministries at the Board of Discipleship, said the idea of wearing new clothes on Easter is an old practice that has lost its meaning.

New converts, she noted, wore their white baptismal robes around town for a week to symbolize their new life in Christ. “In subsequent years, those converts would not put the white robe back on but would wear new clothes to symbolize their participation in new life in Christ.”

So why do many people think they must have new clothes every Easter?

Burton-Edwards suspects our “Easter-industrial complex” is a product of contemporary advertising “to make us think we should buy such things for Easter.

“Easter is still a huge feast day for the church worldwide,” he said. However, he doesn’t believe that “not having a thing to wear” keeps people out of church on Easter or any other Sunday.

“They'll come (or not) because they want to or are invited to come. It seems to me that the business of feeling like one has to have special clothes or new clothes for the occasion or else not come may be more an artifact of certain regions or social groups.”

Welcoming most important

And, Burton-Edwards contends, welcoming people is most important.

“I see almost no value in thinking that by dressing down or dressing as if Easter were just another Sunday, we're doing much of anything in the way of either welcome or evangelism,” he said. “Welcome is far more about how we treat people than what we or they wear.”

Fosua echoes that perspective.

“Today, it might be more meaningful for a congregation to engage in some form of ministry that would demonstrate new life than to symbolize new life in clothing.”

She suggests ministries of mercy on Easter Sunday – “distributing food or clothing to communities in need, or Easter celebrations in public places with the homeless or with those distant from the stained glass.”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.