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The history and tradition behind Easter dates explained

Easter mass
Tens of thousands of people gather in Saint Peter's Square in Vatican City each year. Photo: Getty
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Easter is much more than a cruisy four days off work in the name of a God. Strictly speaking, Easter-related observances by Christians are spread out over 90 days or so – none of which are fixed.

Each year the dates of Holy Week and the preceding period, Lent, is calculated by the Gregorian calendar, based on full moons.

Shrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday is when Christians eat up all the eggs, milk and fat in the house – in the form of pancakes – to clear out all the food that won’t keep for the 40-day fast period of Lent.

Shrove Tuesday is named after the ritual of shriving: sins are confessed and the soul gets a spring cleaning, literally. The day occurs at the beginning of the northern hemisphere spring. This year it was marked on February 28.

Ash Wednesday

The day after Shrove Tuesday, at the start of Lent, churchgoers are marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross made from ashes. It’s all a bit grim, because the ash serves to remind us that we’re all going to die; that our sins should make us feel lousy; and that we’re about to suffer 40 days of abstinence in sympathy with Christ’s suffering of 40 days in the desert and the temptations of Satan.

The ashes are made from the burnt palm crosses that believers have saved from the previous year, on Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday celebrations. Photo: Getty

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. It celebrates Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey to the cheering of multitudes and waving of palm fronds.

Five days later, an equally large crowd called for him to be nailed to a cross. In Palm Sunday services, large palm branches are carried in processions. In some churches, members hold small crosses made of palm leaves, or wear them on their lapels like carnations. The crosses are kept at home for next year’s Ash Wednesday.

Maundy Thursday

This is when most people are packing up their desks and hitting the road for the long weekend.

Christians remember it as the day of the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and is said to have established the first priesthood.

It’s also when he performed the ceremony known as the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion – offering bread as a symbol of his body, and wine as a symbol of his blood.

Catholics see it as more than symbolism, and believe that via transubstantiation the bread and wine are actually turned to Christ’s flesh and blood in a priest’s hands.

Maundy Thursday – the term comes from a mandate to be good – is also the eve that Jesus asked God to let him off the hook, and was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, who turned him over to the whip-wielding authorities.

Good Friday

Jesus has a very bad day that begins with a series of humiliations, sees him nailed to a cross and just prior to dying asks his father, God, why he has forsaken him.

Holy Saturday

Not just a chance to nick down to the shops for bread and milk, Holy Saturday – often wrongly called Easter Saturday – is a day of vigil and prayer for Christians who stay up until midnight, awaiting Christ’s resurrection.

Easter Sunday

Easter eggs
Time to pig out! Photo: Getty

Chocolate heaven, kids going berserk and Christians celebrating the risen Christ. All round, a pretty good day indeed.

Feast of Ascension

Also, known as the 40th day of Easter – it will fall this year on May 25. It celebrates the ascension of Jesus into heaven – not just his soul, but his body. Feasting is observed as part of an all-night vigil.

Easter Monday

The Monday public holiday after Easter Sunday wasn’t around in ye olde Judea.

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