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Easter in Australia

Stained Glass window of Jesus on the cross

Stained Glass, Detail, Sheffield Window, All Saints Church, Canberra, 1958 orig. St Clements Church Attercliffe, Sheffield, 1917.

Easter commemorates the resurrection (return to life) of Jesus Christ following his death by crucifixion. It is the most significant event of the Christian calendar.

On Good Friday, Jesus Christ was executed by crucifixion. His body was taken down from the cross, and buried in a cave. The tomb was guarded and an enormous stone was put over the entrance, so that no-one could steal the body. On the following Sunday, some women visited the grave and found that the stone had been moved, and that the tomb was empty. Jesus himself was seen that day, and for days afterwards by many people. His followers realised that God had raised Jesus from the dead. BBC

Easter celebrates the promise of life in the face of death. Easter celebrations also reflect on peace and forgiveness which has come out of aggression. It is also a time for thinking about suffering, injustice and hardship. During Good Friday services Christians meditate on Jesus's suffering and on his words spoken from the cross: 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.' (New International Version, Luke 23: 34).

Origins, dates and days of Easter

The date on which Easter falls varies from year to year. Easter falls on the Sunday after the ecclesiastical Full Moon that falls on or after March 21. Easter is therefore observed between late March and late April and can extend to early May in the Eastern Christian churches.

A system for calculating the dates for Easter was begun around 532 AD when a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus reconciled the Eastern and Western church calendars with the Julian calendar, established by Julius Caesar. Dionysius Exiguus established the date of Christ's circumcision at 1 January, 1 AD, or Anno Domini, translated as 'the year of our Lord'. While this calendar was adopted by the Church, the old Julian calendar remained in civil use for another thousand years. Eventually, these were reconciled with the current Gregorian calendar, adopted in 1582.

We know that Easter was being observed as early as 180 years AD. The first black African Pope, Pope Victor (189-199 AD) decreed that Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday. However, churches in different regions, such as those represented by a synod of Asiatic bishops, celebrated Easter on different dates, not always on Sundays. The Council of Nicea (AD 325) finally clarified this by stating that Easter would be celebrated on Sundays.

A Christian scholar, the Venerable Bede (672-735 AD), first asserted that Easter was named after Eostre, the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring, eastre. Pagan festivals associated with birth, the renewal of life, fertility and sunrise date back long before Christianity. Pagan religions in the Mediterranean area are recorded as having a major seasonal day of religious celebration at or following the Spring Equinox. Many of the present-day customs of Easter have their origins in these festivals.

Religious observances

There are a number of observances and feast days related to Easter.

Palm Sunday celebrations on Yew Street, Barcaldine, Queensland, 1928.

R. Malden, Palm Sunday celebrations on Yew Street, Barcaldine, Queensland, 1928. Courtesy of Barcaldine Shire Library and State Library of Queensland.

Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In many churches, during Palm Sunday services, large palm branches are carried in processions. Members of the congregation also hold small crosses made of palm leaf. The palm leaves are a reminder of when the people of Jerusalem waved palm leaves when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, and to remember the cross on which he died. The crosses used in the Palm Sunday service are converted to ashes for later use in Ash Wednesday services.

Ash Wednesday draws on the ancient Biblical traditions of covering one's head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting. The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic. Some churches hold special services at which worshippers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a symbol of penitence and mortality.

Lent is the period of forty days which comes before Easter, beginning on Ash Wednesday. Lent is observed as a time for prayer and penance recalling the events leading up to Jesus' crucifixion. Only a small number of people today fast for the whole of Lent, although some maintain the practice on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Purple drapes and altar frontals are used in some churches throughout Lent, because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion. Purple is also the colour associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ's resurrection and sovereignty. Most Christians regard Jesus' time 40 days fasting in the wilderness as the key event for the duration of Lent.

Christians remember Maundy Thursday as the day of the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and established the ceremony known as the Eucharist. The night of Maundy Thursday is the night on which Jesus was betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. Roman Catholic church services feature a ceremony in which the priest washes the feet of 12 people to commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Good Friday, the Friday before Easter, commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus and is a day of mourning in church.

Easter Sunday is the commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and is celebrated with great enjoyment by Christians. Churches are usually filled with flowers and the celebrations include the singing of special hymns.

Ascension Day marks the last earthly appearance of Christ after his resurrection. Christians believe Christ ascended into heaven. It is celebrated 40 days after Easter.

Pentecost is celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Pentecost comes from a Jewish harvest festival called Shavuot. The apostles of Jesus were celebrating this festival when the Holy Spirit descended on them. Pentecost marks the birth of the Christian Church.

Easter traditions

Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day

Shrove Tuesday is the last day before Lent. In earlier days there were many foods that observant Christians would not eat during Lent such as meat and fish, eggs, and milky foods. So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that wouldn't last the forty days of Lent without going off.

Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday because they were a dish that could use up perishable foodstuffs such as eggs, fats and milk, with just the addition of flour. Pancake races are thought to have begun in 1445. A woman who was busy cooking pancakes in her kitchen lost track of the time on Shrove Tuesday and when she heard the church bell ringing, she woman raced out of her house and ran all the way to church; still holding her frying pan and wearing her apron.

Many Australian groups and communities make and share pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Selling pancakes to raise money for charity is also a popular activity.

Hot Cross Buns

Hot cross buns are sweet, spiced buns made with dried fruit and leavened with yeast. A cross, the symbol of Christ, is placed on top of the buns, either with pastry or a simple mixture of flour and water. The buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday, however in Australia they are available in bakeries and stores many weeks before Easter.

A recent variation on the traditional fruit bun has become popular in Australia. A chocolate version is made with the same spiced mixture, but cocoa is added to the dough and chocolate chips replace the dried fruit.

Easter Eggs

Eggs, symbolising new life, have long been associated with the Easter festival. Chocolate Easter eggs, are a favourite part of Easter in Australia. Some families and community groups organise Easter egg hunts for children in parks and recreational areas. Easter eggs are traditionally eaten on Easter Sunday, however stores start stocking Easter treats well before the Easter holiday period.

The Easter Bunny

Early on Easter Sunday morning, the Easter Bunny 'delivers' chocolate Easter eggs to children in Australia, as he does in many parts of the world.

The rabbit and the hare have long been associated with fertility, and have therefore been associated with spring and spring festivals. The rabbit as a symbol of Easter seems to have originated in Germany where it was first recorded in writings in the 16th century. The first edible Easter bunnies, made from sugared pastry, were made in Germany in the 19th century.

The Easter Bilby

Rabbits are an introduced species in Australia and are unpopular because of the damage they do to the land.

In 1991 a campaign was started by the Anti-Rabbit Research Foundation to replace the Easter Bunny with the Easter Bilby (an endangered species). Author Jeni Bright wrote a children's story called Burra Nimu the Easter Bilby to support the campaign.

Greek Orthodox Easter traditions

The celebrations for Greek Easter begin two months before Christian Easter celebrations with Mardi Gras. The Carnival or Apokria season starts on the Sunday of Teloni and Farisou and ends on Shrovetide Sunday with the Burning of the Carnival King , which involves setting fire to an enormous papier-mache effigy of Judas.

For Greeks, Clean Monday is one of the most festive holidays of the year. As Lent begins, children and their parents go to fly kites and feast at local tavernas or outdoor picnics.

On Holy Thursday the bright dyed red eggs that are symbolic of Easter in Greece are prepared. Tradition says that the Virgin Mother, Mary, dyed eggs this colour to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ and to celebrate life. On Good Friday or Great Friday, flags at homes and government buildings are set at half mast to mark the mournful day.

Celebrations continue with the cracking of eggs and The Resurrection Table. The dyed red Easter eggs that are found on the Resurrection Table become pieces of a traditional game. Each person takes an egg and challengers attempt to crack each others' eggs, which is meant to symbolise Christ breaking from the Tomb. The person whose egg lasts the longest is assured good luck for the rest of the year.

Blessing of the Fleet

Photograph of Ulladulla Blessing of the Fleet

Photograph by A. Bisckos. Courtesy of Ulladulla Blessing of the Fleet.

The Ulladulla Blessing of the Fleet Festival at Easter on the New South Wales south coast is an old tradition which originated in Sicily to ensure that the fishermen would return to port and have a bountiful catch.

In 1956, Italian fishermen and their families organised Ulladulla's first Blessing of the Fleet, with St. Peter being chosen as the patron Saint of Fishermen. Activities included the spaghetti-eating contest, climbing of the greasy pole, apple on a string, greasy pig and the naming of the Fishermen's Princess, traditions which still continue.

The Easter holiday in Australia

The four-day 'weekend'

In addition to its religious significance, Easter in Australia is enjoyed as a four-day holiday weekend starting on Good Friday and ending on Easter Monday.

This extra-long weekend is an opportunity for Australians to take a mini-holiday, or get together with family and friends. Easter often coincides with school holidays, so many people with school aged children incorporate Easter into a longer family holiday. Easter is the busiest time for domestic air travel in Australia, and a very popular time for gatherings such as weddings and christenings.

Sydney Royal Easter Show

Rusty the rodeo clown at the Easter Show in Sydney 1991

Rusty the rodeo clown, Easter Show, Sydney, 1991. Photo by Jon Lewis. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

The Sydney Royal Easter Show is Australia's largest annual event and celebrates all everything from our bush heritage to the vitality of city life. It takes place annually at Sydney Olympic Park over a two-week period which includes the Easter long weekend.

The Show is part of the long tradition of agricultural shows that are held in towns and cities across Australia. At these shows, rural and farming communities showcase their livestock and produce, and exhibitors, organisations and companies provide people in urban areas with a glimpse of rural life.

Shows are also a time for competition, spectacle and entertainment. The Sydney Royal Easter Show includes the Sydney Royal Rodeo, and the visitors to the show can enjoy the latest on offer in the way of extreme rides and attractions.

Festivals

There are many festivals held over the Easter holiday in Australia. Performers and audiences travel long distances to attend music festivals as diverse as the National Folk Festival in Canberra, the East Coast International Blues & Roots Festival at Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, and the Easterfest (previously Australian Gospel Music Festival in Toowoomba in Queensland.

There are also festivals with a more local or regional nature such as the Bendigo Easter Festival, in Victoria.

Sport

The football season is well under way by Easter and all football codes schedule major league matches over the Easter holiday period which are well attended.

The Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race, a 308 nautical mile ocean race, is Queensland's premier blue water classic and one of Australia's major sporting events over the Easter weekend.

For horse racing fans there is a four-day Easter Racing Carnival at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney, Caulfield Racecourse in Melbourne holds an Easter Saturday Meeting and an Easter Monday Meeting, and other cities and regional centres also schedule racing events at this time of year.

The Tasmania Three Peaks Race, a four-day, non-stop 335 nautical mile sailing and endurance running race around Tasmania's east coast every Easter attracts contestants from around the world. Teams of two runners leave their yachts at three points on the coast for 133 km of running. Each run involves scaling a rugged mountain peak.

The Stawell Easter Gift began as an athletics competition between miners in the Victorian goldfields in 1878, and has run for all but four years since its inception. This event is Australia's 'best-known, richest and oldest professional footrace' and is held every Easter in the small town of Stawell, located near the Grampians National Park in Victoria.

Useful links

The Easter calendar

Easter Bunny and Easter Bilby

Easter festivals and events in Australia

Last updated: 3rd January 2008

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