Catholic vs Orthodox Easter Traditions 101

Spring is here, and it’s almost time for Easter, Christianity’s most important holiday which celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. You probably know the Catholic and Christian Easter traditions have mixed religious practices with pastel eggs and chocolate bunnies. But the Orthodox world has its own very different ways of celebrating the holiday. Below are 5 main differences between Catholic and Orthodox Easter traditions you should know.

Difference #1: Time of Observance

The first main difference between Catholic and Orthodox Easter (Pascha) in Russia lies in the date it is celebrated. While Easter is a moveable feast, Eastern and Western Christianity base their calculations for it on different calendars.

Easter has always been celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Both Western Churches (Catholic and Protestant) and Eastern Churches (Greek and Russian Orthodox) follow this tradition even though there is a gap of about five weeks between the dates of the two Easter celebrations. The reason for the difference is that the Western Church follows the old Julian calendar, while the Orthodox Church uses the Gregorian calendar.

Another difference is in the way both churches calculate the date of the vernal equinox. The Western Church abides by the ecclesiastical full moon which holds 21st March as the steady date for the vernal equinox. On the other hand, the Eastern Church determines its celebration in relation to the astronomical full moon. This explains why the dates of Catholic and Orthodox Easter are different each year and rarely coincide. However, 2017 is one occasion when the Western and Eastern worlds will celebrate holiday on the same day: April, 16.

Difference #2: Great Lent & Fasting

The second difference between Easter traditions is the way each Church enters Lent. There is no Ash Wednesday service in the Orthodox Church, but something called Forgiveness Sunday instead. While Ash Wednesday stresses reconciliation with God, Forgiveness Sunday reminds church-goers of the importance of reconciliation with each other. That’s why there’s a tradition to ask your family, friends and everyone you know or meet that day for forgiveness.

The fasting practices in Western and Eastern Churches are also not the same. Catholics and Protestants can choose what to give up for Lent, like chocolate or Facebook. Orthodox fasting is much stricter and it is not permitted to customize. Those who fast basically become vegan for 40 days and don’t eat meat, eggs, and dairy, or drink alcohol.

Difference #3: Church Services

The services in Western and Eastern Churches are very different to start with, but during Lent and Holy Week this is especially true. Orthodox services are long and numerous, with lots of standing, bowing, and full prostration, which makes them less people-friendly. The Easter liturgy itself begins around 10 pm Saturday night and finishes at dawn on Sunday morning.

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Difference #4: Symbolism & Food

Do you think that Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs are universal Easter traditions? Not quite. Orthodox Pascha has nothing to do with bunnies and most people will probably not even get the connection. It’s the same for chocolate eggs, which makes Orthodox Easter traditions less attractive for kids than in the Catholic world. Easter in Russia is not a commercialized event, and is more about spiritual growth and renewal. So, what are the symbols of Orthodox Easter in Russia if chocolate and bunnies are out of the question?

After fasting during Great Lent when many animal products are forbidden, Pascha is the day of delicious, abundant food. Most families observe Orthodox Easter with a beautiful table decorated with fresh spring flower bouquets and lots of traditional Russian food.

The main meals are ritual ones: painted eggs, Paskha cakes, and kulich are essential Easter traditions. Eggs, traditionally dyed in shades of red, are the Pascha symbol of resurrection and new life. Kulich is a fresh-baked bread with white icing, sprinkles, and the letters XB. These letters stand for, “Christ is Risen,” a reference to Jesus’ resurrection and the reason for the celebration. Paskha is a pyramid-shaped sweet cheese dessert made with farmer’s cheese, eggs, butter, raisins, and nuts. Ham, bacon, or lamb are also mandatory foods for Orthodox Easter traditions. They symbolize the great joy and abundance of Easter. All these foods are usually included in Easter baskets people bring to the Easter liturgy for the priest’s blessings. They are also usually used to break the fast on Easter Sunday after a 40-day Lent.

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Difference #5: Easter Games

Finally, egg hunting is another fun Western tradition the Orthodox world doesn’t share. The typical Easter game in Russia is cracking eggs, which is symbolic of resurrection and new life. The rules are simple. Each player holds a red egg (which represents the blood of Christ) and taps the end of their egg against the end of the other player’s egg. The goal is to crack the opponent’s egg. When one end cracks, the winner continues to try to crack the other end of the opponent’s egg. The player who cracks the other player’s egg on both ends wins and will have good luck during the year.

In the end, many families choose to mix and match the Easter traditions that best suit them. So whatever activities you and yours include in your Easter or Pascha holiday, have fun with it! The most important thing is to connect with your faith and your loved ones. An Easter gift or two of gourmet food to indulge in is certainly welcome as well.

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