From my childhood, I remember Easter. I remember the anticipation of getting up and searching for the dyed eggs scattered about the house. Our Easter baskets were filled with candy treats and topped off with a large chocolate egg or bunny. I remember going to church dressed in new clothes and I remember walking around the neighborhood visiting all our relatives and checking out the Easter baskets of our many cousins. I also remember that none of us shared our candy with each other.
I remember that Easter dinner was usually a raucous affair with Uncles and Aunts and cousins all crowded into one of our dining rooms. The dinner usually included home made ravioli and platters of meats cooked in the sauce. The ravioli were not like the perfect ravioli you see in the market today, ours were three to four inches square and stuffed with a mixture of ricotta and spinach. There was usually enough to satisfy even the largest appetites in the crowd.
In the Italian language, the word Pasqua (Easter) is derived from the Latin "Festa Paschalia", plural for the seven-day feast that the word describes. The Latin word is derived from the Greek, "Pascha" which is derived from the Hebrew, "Pesach" (Passover). The English word Easter comes from Old English and the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring.
Easter is the oldest of Christian holidays and the most important day in the Liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. The religious significance of Easter is established by the 40 day season of Lent, a period of fasting, prayer, and repentance which precedes it. The Lenten season's culmination is Holy Week, the seven days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday is the celebration of the Messiah's entry into Jerusalem. Holy Thursday is the celebration of the Last Supper and the establishment of the Eucharist as the Body of Christ. Good Friday is the commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, and Easter Sunday, the celebration of His Resurrection from the dead. This is what Easter is all about.
Palm Sunday signifies the beginning of the Easter season. At the Palm Sunday mass palms are passed out to the congregation and the Priest usually enters the church from the back of the church and processes to the altar sprinkling the congregation with holy water. The procession represents the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to the cheers of the people, many of whom would soon condemn Him to the Romans. On Palm Sunday it is also customary to make palm crosses and place the palm branches on the graves of our loved ones at the cemetery.
Holy Thursday is an extremely spiritual day as we approach the end of the Lenten season. Large glass jars of oil are carried into the cathedral and placed on tables before the altar. In an age-old ceremony of the Catholic Church, Bishop blesses the oils and breathes on them. Later, the oils are placed into small vessels and distributed to the representatives of each parish in our diocese to be used by the parish priest to anoint the sick, for baptisms, and to confirm members.
Almost every parish celebrates an evening mass on Holy Thursday to commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. During the mass, the priest washes the feet of a number of parishioners as a sign of service, the master bathes the feet of his servant. After the mass of the Last Supper, many parishes participate in the old Roman custom of the visitation of seven churches. A group from a particular parish will travel to seven different parishes in the diocese. Some are close by and some are farther away. The participating churches remain open until midnight to accommodate the visitors who usually recite prayers and spend a little time in quiet contemplation.
Good Friday can only be described as a day of solemn prayer, fasting, and abstinence. This is the only day of the year that the liturgy is not celebrated. The altar has been stripped (after mass on Holy Thursday) and the Eucharist removed from the tabernacle. Since this is not a mass and only a communion service, the pre-consecrated Eucharist is distributed in silence. The cross is venerated and the congregation comes forward to either kiss or touch the Corpus. The readings, music, and tone of the service are one of solemnity and at the end of the service everyone leaves the church in silence.
Years ago, before Vatican II, the statues in the church were covered in purple cloth and many businesses were closed between the hours of Noon and 3:00 p.m. Many people turned off televisions and radios during those hours also. The hours symbolized the hours that Jesus was on the cross.
Holy Saturday is generally regarded as the conclusion of Lent and the day is set aside as a time for preparation for Easter Sunday. In the afternoon, the church is decorated to celebrate the most holy day in the calendar of the church and many parishes practice the tradition of blessing of the Easter baskets.
Near the hour of dusk on Saturday, the church fills with people who have come to celebrate the Easter vigil. The church is completely dark until the priest lights a fire, usually in the back of the church. From that New Fire, the Easter Candle is lit and from the Easter Candle small candles are lighted and passed through the congregation until everyone has a lighted candle. This signifies the Resurrection and the coming of the light into the world. The Easter Vigil liturgy usually lasts for at least two hours as numerous Old and New Testament tracts are read to the congregation. Included in the liturgy are the blessing of the waters, baptisms, and the entry of new members to the Catholic Church. Other Christian denominations celebrate the beginning of the Easter Holy Day with a sunrise service rather than a vigil service. The intent is the same, the entry of the Light into the world.
Most people attend Mass or the Christian church of their choice on Easter Sunday morning. I have noticed that this is one of the busiest days of the year for the church. Almost every mass is completely filled (just like regular Sunday mass in the old days) with standing room only. No matter, the celebration of your religious beliefs, whether one day or one hundred days a year, is a joyous occasion. As the sign says, "All are Welcome"
On Easter Sunday, my family still sits down to a family feast of antipasti, home-made pasta, roasted lamb, salads, dolci, wines and sweets that we have "passed over " for the previous 40 days. We do this with joy and the celebration of family. There are still Easter eggs and candy for the children, but the adults realize that the Holy day of Easter is much, much more than that.