Time of rebirth for all
WHAT IS Easter?
Is it a celebration of the bounty of Mother Earth and the balance of the seasons, marked by an equinox?
Is it a mix of sorrow for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and joy at his resurrection?
Or is it just a public holiday?
Historically, it was celebrated in the northern hemisphere by the ancient druids and other pagan groups as a spring festival, all about fertility, renewal and rebirth after the suspended animation of winter.
The first full moon after the spring equinox was called Ostara and was sacred to Eostre, the Saxon Lunar Goddess of fertility.
This was the time, the ancients believed, when the Sun God entered into a sacred marriage with the Maiden Goddess, who would give birth nine months later.
There's a striking similarity between this tradition and the story of the Feast of the Annunciation, remembered by Christians on March 25, when Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told she will give birth to the son of God nine months later, on December 25.
The holiday we call Easter is also held at the same time of year as other ancient festivals. For example, in Iran hundreds of years before the Common Era, in the prehistoric time of the philosopher Zoroastra, Nowruz was the ancient spring festival held on the spring equinox. Also known as Persian New Year, it's still celebrated in some Middle Eastern countries.
It's also a holy day for Sufis, Ismailis and adherents of the Baha'i faith.
The ancient Persians painted and decorated eggs during the Nowruz festival - a tradition that later became embedded in Christian Easter celebrations.
Easter also falls at the same time as the Jewish Pesach, or Feast of the Passover, and retains some of its traditions.
Pesach was named for God's "passing over" Jewish homes, which had been marked by the blood of a sacrificed lamb, to spare the Jews while stopping at all Egyptian households and killing the first-born son. This was after God had caused nine plagues in Egypt. After the Passover, the Pharaoh set the Jews free, which led to the famous "exodus" of the enslaved Jews from Egypt.
In the Bible story, Jesus was attending a Passover feast when he went to Jerusalem prior to being seized by Pontius Pilate, put on trial and crucified.
The famous "Last Supper" was a Pesach celebration. It's still observed in orthodox Jewish households with a "Seder" festival - seder meaning "order".
A festive meal is prepared strictly according to kosher rules of culinary hygiene. Some foods are prohibited, but unleavened bread always forms part of the feast. Stories are told and foot washing is part of the ritual - a tradition that features in the story of the Last Supper, in which Jesus washes the feet of the apostles. The Christian practice of the Eucharist, in which bread and wine are shared in "holy communion", also derive from the Last Supper.
Easter is considered more central to the Christian calendar even than Christmas. Many Christians sacrifice something they would usually enjoy for the month-long period of Lent, which leads up to it. The final week of Lent is Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday when Christians mourn their crucified messiah.
Then follows the resurrection on Easter Sunday, when Jesus is fabled to have risen from his tomb.
In this event all the themes of renewal and rebirth, from all the world traditions, meld into one story - the possibility of life beyond death and the mystery of the infinite.