Easter and Passover 101

With Easter and the start of Passover falling on the same dates, this coming weekend will surely be filled with family, food and celebration for young professionals across the country. In several conversations among peers, however, it has recently been discovered that many (and even those who participate in holiday celebrations) are self-admittedly not clear on their significance. We thought we’d clear it up for you…

To many who celebrate this holiday, Easter represents family dinners, chocolate bunnies, mimosas, colourful pastels and perhaps a church appearance. The timing for Easter varies each year but it is celebrated on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25th. Easter marks the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and is one of the most important holidays in Christianity, next to Christmas. Always a legal holiday, Good Friday is the day that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of others, while Easter Sunday is the day that Jesus rose from the dead and conquered death. Easter means different things for different Christians. Roman Catholics, for example, observe the holiday and feast as an eight-day celebration called the Octave of Easter. For some, Easter Sunday also marks the end of Lent, an occasion of self-sacrifice whereby participants give up something of pleasure for 40 days of the religious season.

Derived from the old name of the month of April, Eostremonat (from the name of the Saxon goddess Eostre), the term Easter is used only in the English and German languages. Easter Brunch (post Easter egg hunt if you have kids, nieces and nephews) is a favourite pastime, whereby hearty breakfast food like bacon, eggs, French toast and cereals are paired with more lunch and dinner-appropriate foods like ham, lamb, roast, vegetables and salads. Some families also do a turkey or ham dinner. As for the Easter bunny and the Easter egg, the Easter bunny is a rabbit spirit and, since rabbits have frequent and multiple births, they are a sign of fertility. The Easter egg hunt pastime began because children believed that rabbits laid eggs in the grass. Eggs are symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Romans believed that all life comes from an egg, with Christians considering eggs to be “the seed of life.”

Pesach, or Passover in English, begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan and typically falls in March or April of the Gregorian calendar. Passover is one of the most known and widely observed Jewish holidays and commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and their liberation from oppression. Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel.

The eight-day festival begins this Friday at sundown, with the first and last days observed as legal Jewish holidays and as holy days characterized by abstention from work, special prayer services and big holiday meals. During the eight days, observers refrain from eating most wheat or grain products made from the five grains that can ferment when they come into contact with water: wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye. This means no pastas, beer and breads, with the exception of matzah, unleavened bread that is made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. Probably the most significant observance of the holiday involves the removal of chametz, which is any leavened bread made from the five major grains that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water, from homes and property. The removal of chametz symbolizes the fact that the Jews left Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise. Matzah is traditionally viewed as the bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt.

It is traditional for Jewish families to gather on the first night of Passover for a special dinner called a Seder. Passover is also known for its ties with Christian history, as the Last Supper was apparently a Passover Seder.  Family customs may vary with the Seder, but it typically involves the table set with the family’s finest china and silverware to reflect the importance of the meal. During the meal, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is usually retold using a special text called the Haggadah; four cups of wine are consumed at various stages in the narrative. Typical foods include matzah ball soup, Maror (bitter herbs used to symbolize the bitterness of slavery), Charoses (a mixture of apples, nuts, wine, and cinnamon, to symbolize the mortar used by the Jews in the construction of buildings as slaves), Beitzah (a roasted egg, as a symbol of life), Karpas (a root vegetable representing hope and redemption) and Zeroah (a piece of roasted lamb shankbone to symbolize the paschal sacrificial offering.