What Is Easter and Why Do We Celebrate It?

Here's everything you need to know about what Easter is and how the holiday began.

There’s a lot to love about Easter, from the springtime setting with newly bloomed flowers to the fun Easter traditions, like egg hunts and Easter baskets. It’s a holiday loved by many: Eight in ten Americans celebrated the holiday in 2021, and while only 3 percent of those responding to a Harris Poll chose Easter as their favorite holiday (unsurprisingly, most picked Christmas), it consistently ranks in the top five most popular holidays in the United States. But what is Easter all about?

Some celebrants might say it’s about candy—giving it, getting it, gobbling it down before dinner. (The little ones would agree.) But for many people, Easter is more in line with the religious observances of Lent and Good Friday. Before you look into what day Easter is or send those Easter wishes to loved ones, read up on the origins of the holiday as we know it.

What is the original meaning of Easter?

Easter is a religious Christian holiday observed around the world to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the spiritual leader of Christianity—and to Christians, the Son of God. But with some aspects of the holiday rooted in pagan and Jewish traditions, the origin of Easter dates back to centuries before Christ was even born. These days, many people celebrate Easter, regardless of their religion.

What is the story of Easter?

The story of Easter is the story of the start of one of the world’s largest religions. According to the Bible, the Romans crucified Jesus, a popular Jewish preacher and religious leader whom many believed was the son of God. Three days after he was entombed, he was resurrected from the grave, overcoming death, and through his sacrifice, offering salvation to all humankind. So, what is Easter? In short, it’s a holiday celebrating this miracle.

When is Easter this year?

Easter falls on Sunday, April 17, 2022. While many other holidays have fixed dates (Christmas, for instance, is always on December 25), Easter’s date changes from year to year. Determining the date is a little like working out an Easter riddle: What happens on the first Sunday following the full moon that occurs on or just after the spring equinox? Yep, that’s Easter.

Based on the cycles of the moon, the holiday might occur any day from March 22 to April 25. It can get confusing, so here’s a cheat sheet of Easter dates for the next five years:

  • Sunday, April 9, 2023
  • Sunday, March 31, 2024
  • Sunday, April 20, 2025
  • Sunday, April 5, 2026
  • Sunday, March 28, 2027

History of Easter

The Christian celebration of Jesus’s resurrection may be the most familiar Easter tradition, but it’s certainly not the oldest. The holiday also has roots in paganism and Judaism.

Pagan Easter traditions

There is historical evidence of millennia-old spring celebrations centered around the equinox—early versions of May Day festivals. Because they occurred at the beginning of the planting season, many of these early pagan holidays used symbols of fertility, growth, birth, fortune, and light conquering the dark. Many secular Easter traditions are handed down from these ancient rituals, including Easter baskets, flower crowns, and egg hunts.

Even the holiday’s name has a pagan connection. Historians believe Easter was named after one of the more popular figures in these celebrations: the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre.

Christian Easter traditions

When early Christians were creating their calendar of holy days, it made sense to combine the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection with the traditional spring festival. So instead of centering on the pagan Eostre, the holiday’s religious history is all about Jesus Christ.

The popular Jewish preacher became a target of Jewish authorities after he claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God. The Romans also saw him as a possible political problem. Jesus was tried and convicted of blasphemy by Jewish authorities and sentenced to execution. The Roman governor ordered his death in a brutal Roman style called crucifixion; Jesus was crowned with thorns and nailed to a cross until he died. After, his body was dressed and laid to rest in a stone tomb. Three days later, he was miraculously resurrected and returned to visit his disciples.

Easter serves as the foundation for many holy celebrations that lead up it, starting with Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), Lent (the observance of giving up something you love for 40 days in honor of Jesus’s 40-day fast in the desert), Palm Sunday (the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem and was celebrated as the Messiah), and Good Friday (the day Jesus was crucified).

Traditions like baking hot cross buns and filling empty eggs are symbolic of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the tomb. Other traditions based on the Christian story include listening to performances of Handel’s Messiah and watching Easter movies, including The Passion of the Christ.

Jewish Easter traditions

Other religious Easter traditions come from the concurrent Jewish celebration of Passover, a commemoration of the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. The Jewish holiday provides the basis for Easter feasts and many traditional Easter foods, including lamb.

Why do we celebrate Easter with eggs and bunnies?

Easter TreatsFPG/Getty Images

Marking such a solemn holiday with a mascot like the Easter Bunny may not seem like the most logical choice. But it begins to make sense when you remember that Eostre is the goddess of fertility, and rabbits mate like, well, rabbits. Baby bunnies are everywhere in the springtime, a sign of fertility and, traditionally speaking, of good luck.

The bunny that brings Easter baskets of goodies for teens, tweens, and little tykes is a relatively modern invention. The origin of the Easter Bunny dates back to the 1900s, when it appeared in advertising cartoons.

Its loot—whether candy-colored dyed eggs or those made from sweet chocolate—is a nod to both pagan and Christian traditions. Eggs represent new life, symbolizing not only the fertility of Eostre but also the rebirth of Christ after death.

Because the holiday is also a celebration of the season, aligning closely with the spring equinox, symbols of spring are incorporated into the festivities. After all, what is Easter without baby chicks, green grass, and flowers in bloom?

How to celebrate Easter

Many people have their own favorite family Easter games and activities, but there’s always room to add more fun. Let the little ones hunker down in front of an Easter movie for kids while adults prep dinner. Get the whole group involved in playing Easter bingo. Or take part in one of the activities below.

Dye Easter eggs

Wax, glitter, stickers, markers, and tubs of brightly colored dyes add whimsy and fun to hard-boiled eggs. Kids and adults alike can express their creative sides while creating designs worthy of holiday decor. Not sure where to begin? Try one of these unique egg-decorating ideas.

Hunt for Easter eggs

Fill plastic eggs with candy and toys, then hide them outdoors for children to find on Easter morning. It’s a treasure hunt, a form of exercise, and a photo opportunity all in one. Hint: This is the Easter candy everyone wants in their baskets this year.

Attend a church service

What is Easter all about? For Christians, it’s the resurrection of Christ after he died on the cross, so church is front and center in the celebration. Most Christian churches offer a special service on Easter morning. It’s tradition to wear your Sunday best while listening to a sermon and singing hymns.

Host Easter dinner

This is the perfect opportunity to gather your loved ones for a celebratory feast. Ham or lamb, potatoes, fresh vegetables, hot cross buns, deviled eggs, fruit salad, and carrot cake are just some of the traditional Easter foods you’re likely to find on the table. If you’re looking to break from tradition, try one of these Easter dinner ideas.

Easter fun facts

  • There are 50 official flavors of Jelly Belly jelly beans, but the company is always trying out new flavors and releasing limited editions. This year, you can try candy corn and Tabasco. (Though maybe not at the same time.)

  • 180 million eggs are purchased each year for Easter. They’re used for dyeing, hunts, and Easter recipes.

  • More than 80 percent of parents admit to stealing candy from their kids’ Easter baskets.

  • Cadbury makes 500 million Creme Eggs every year—more than 1.5 million per day, every single day.

  • Chocolate bunnies are the most popular item to put in an Easter basket, and over 78 percent of people say they eat the ears first.

  • 60 percent of parents say they still send their adult kids an Easter basket, even after they’ve moved out.

  • The largest chocolate egg ever created weighed 15,873 pounds—about the size of an elephant! The largest chocolate bunny was 9,360 pounds.

  • Easter Sunday is the most popular day to attend church in America.

Sources:

Popular Videos

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.