The resurrection of Christ – Easter or The GreatDay
/Cultural Comparison Paper/
by Andrey Voynov
Date: May 2000
Class: English 12
The American Easter and the Bulgarian “Velikden”, two names for the biggest spring ancient Christian holiday, celebrating the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Easter is one of the oldest holidays, as long with Christmas and all the days of the saints because it is connected to Christianity, a religion dating from thousands of years ago Although both the Bulgarian and the American countries are primarily Christian, the historical and geographical separation has given birth to some differences in the customs, which are developing and widening even now. It is possible that with time the two will become so disparate that they will seem unconnected, but I think that we are still talking about the same holiday, but with different interpretations and realization (and I hope it will remain the same holiday, because it is a celebration of the whole Christian family, and it should be able to jump over the political barriers).
The primary disparity between Bulgarian and American ways of celebration appears in the historical context. First of all, the US is a relatively young country, whose traditions are based on the traditions of the immigrants that started populating. These immigrants came mostly from Western Europe, a second prerequisite for a difference, because of the schism in the Church – the separation between the Eastern and the Western Churches from the time of the Byzantium Empire. After the schism the religion in Western Europe, the main fuel for the US, remained the Catholicism, while the other transformed in the “so called” religion of the Eastern Churches, to which all of the Bulgarians belong. Because of the lack of contacts between the two Churches, some differences developed in the way people celebrate almost all f?tes, differences that transferred to differences between the American and Bulgarian cultures. Also, because the US is such a m?lange of different cultures, coming from all Europe, Asia and Africa, each culture carrying behind it the pre-Christian customs that managed to withstand Christianity, there are all sorts of local traditions in the US, that I cannot identify all the traits of the American way of celebrating Easter.
There are many things in our way of celebrating Easter that are not present anywhere in the world. Bulgaria accepted Christianity very early in its history, while its population was so diverse and there were so many internal forces acting on its culture and individuals that it was hard for the different tribes to accept the new religion that would impose on their most sacred beliefs. Some of them didn’t accept Christianity to the maximal extent and mixed their pagan rituals with the intruding ones, which now gives birth to the differences in the customs of Bulgaria and the US and even to the differences in the customs in the geographical regions in Bulgaria itself.
“When I first lived through Easter in California, I couldn’t find any difference in the celebration. I could feel the same excitement, the same spirit and attitude in the people towards the holiday, as the ones I have felt here in Bulgaria,” says Gabriela Simeonova, a senior from the college1. And it is indeed so: Easter is an all-Christian holiday, which suggests that it must be celebrated with the same respect by all people with that religion. Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Its name supposedly comes from “Eostre”, the Anglo-Saxon name of the goddess of spring and fertility, which was celebrated in the spring at about the same time. Traditions associated with this festival survive in the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and in the colored Easter eggs, originally painted with bright colors to represent the sunlight of spring. According to the New Testament, Christ was crucified on the eve of Passover and shortly afterwards he rose from the dead. There were many shifts in the rules that determine the exact date of the holiday through the ages, but the current one was established by Pope Gregory VIII in 1582, when he designed the Gregorian calendar and became common for all Western Europe (and later for the US) in 1752 when Britain and Ireland adopted it. For the Eastern Churches the matters remained as they were since the fall of the Roman Empire – they connected Easter to the Jewish Passover(or Pesach, from where another name for Easter is derived – “Pasch” 2), a festival commemorating the advent of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets. Thus, the US celebrates on the first Sunday after the first full moon, and Bulgaria on the Sunday before or after, depending on the date of the other. This is a movable feast – it can occur anywhere between March 22 and April 25.
The Easter day itself is important, but more characteristic are the preparations for it. There is always a Lent – a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter. The length of this fast in Bulgaria, where both the Saturday and the Sunday are considered as festival days, is eight weeks before Easter. In the US, where only the Sunday is festival, the period is 40 days. The first day of the Lent is called Ash Wednesday, but is observed only in the US – its name comes from the fact that the priests put ash on the faces of the congregation, reciting ”Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In this period in Bulgaria people are not allowed to consume anything connected to animals – meat, milk, cheese, eggs, etc. In the US, the restrictions are not so strict – the only limitation is that they should eat sparely, without meat. But “the Americans are much more religious than the people here, so they obey their regulations more strictly, although the regulations themselves are not many,” explained James Dimitrov when asked about the Lent in the US 3. In recent years the Catholic Church has relaxed the laws of fasting and now it is obligatory on the Fridays of the Lent, on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, immediately preceding Easter.
Good Friday is the anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion. In US there is a specific liturgy consisting of three parts, including the reading of the Passion, the veneration of the cross and a general communion service. In Bulgaria, this day is considered one of the twelve “Bad” Fridays – days of protection against hail, sickness and death. The women are not allowed to sew, weave, or do other typically female occupations, and the males do not shave and wash. Another very important day is the Sunday before Easter, which is connected with the entrance of Jesus in Jerusalem. In the US it is called Palm Sunday, which comes from the fact that in many regions the priests bless palm leaves and there are processions with that leaves, symbolizing the fact that Jesus was welcomed with palm leaves in the Holy City. On this day, in contrast to the Bulgarian quiet way of celebration, there are festivals in many parts of the United States, as the Easter Parade in New York, the Easter Sunday Services in Red Rocks Park in Denver or The Palm Sunday in Florida. In Bulgaria this custom was translated as the Weeping Willow Sunday – instead of with palm leaves Jesus was greeted with weeping willow leaves. Thus in my country, today (yesterday), the priests hallow the branches, which then the people carry home in order to remove all evil spirits, and early in the morning they go to the graveyards and light up candles, which should warm the dead and guide their way. From the leaves that are home the women make wreaths, which then are pointed to the sky and burned in order to protect the family from thunders and hail in the coming year. You may see that the rituals in the US are mostly religious, connected with the church, while in Bulgaria there are many rites coming from the pagan times, connected with the belief that we should protect ourselves from the evil spirits, a superstitious thinking dating back to the pre-Christian times on our lands, when the people couldn’t find any other way of supporting their spirits in those hard times.
In Bulgaria, in fact, every day of the whole week before Easter (“Strastna Sedmitsa”) is connected with something. The whole family cleans and arranges the house and the yard for the first three days. This is done for health and prosperity of the household. The Great Thursday is the first day of a series of four Thursdays, in which there is a complete taboo to work. On this day, usually the Easter eggs are colored, using “Silenced Water”, water brought in by a “clean” girl from three places. Then the Great Friday follows. After it comes the Holy Saturday, when the women go to the graveyards and leave there boiled wheat, colored eggs, and bread for the souls of the dead. Also on this day in Bulgaria the ritual Easter breads are made. They have circular form with a hole in the middle or are like a network. There are three types of breads, one for the family, for the godfather and the relatives, and for the “godmother” of the girls that will be married in the following year. I haven’t found yet any ritual food for the Americans, despite the chocolate rabbits and figures and the egg salad in which the colored eggs transform after and if they are found.
The most characteristic ritual for Easter is the coloring of the eggs, which is present in every Christian home on the planet. The eggs are colored on Thursday in Bulgaria on either Thursday or Friday in the US. The first egg in the US has to be red, symbolizing the color of the blood of Jesus on the cross, but the following ones are all colorful. In Bulgaria all eggs used to be red, but lately this tradition is replaced by the western tradition – to make the eggs colorful, which is more beautiful to watch. One egg is always left for the whole year in Bulgaria, which is believed to keep the Holy Spirit in the house until the next Easter. In the US, the eggs are not only painted in one color, but sometimes the women paint them with candles and brushes, thus receiving very beautiful compositions, deserving a place in many of the famous expositions of Easter eggs. In Bulgaria, a very common and original way of coloring is using geraniums, which leaves the prints of the small leaves on the eggs, a custom coming from the belief that geraniums bring health.
Very interesting are the customs connected with the eggs. First of all, there is an Easter liturgy, on the evening before the Sunday, which starts at about eight and ends after midnight. Just at 12:00, the priests exit the church and give out the Holy Flame, which is symbolic of the spirit of Christ that has left for the Heavens. The people receive the flame from each other, and usually one candle is carried back to the house where it is left to burn out. This custom is common for both countries because it is connected to religion. Afterwards the people rejoice the finish of the Lent by a prolific meal, which is also very specific, just as it is on Christmas – there has to be a food with fries liver, and one with lamb, as long with all the breads that had been made the day before. In Bulgaria there is a ritual of breaking the eggs by hitting them with their two ends, pronouncing the words: ”Hristos Voskrese” and “Voistina Voskrese”, which is a celebration of the fact that Jesus is resurrected. The person whose egg has survived the most is considered the most healthful for the following year. In the US, there is no egg breaking, but the elders hide the eggs in the garden, as if the Easter Bunny has left them there, and leave the children to try to find them (the so called Egg Hunt). Also, there is a traditional “Egg Rolling” competition at the lawn in front of the White House, the winner of which is regarded as the luckiest and healthiest throughout the following year.
Indeed, the traditions of the two countries are varied and are deeply
rooted in the development of the two cultures. Even though Bulgaria is
much more older in a historical sense, and has developed traditions for
centuries, the United States of America has built its on the already created
and old systems, thus synthesizing a culture unique by its own. There are
certainly differences in these traditions, sometimes subtle, sometimes
evident, which have found their expression in the way each celebrates Easter.
However, no matter how much this difference will become, Easter will remain
one of the most beloved Christian holidays, and until both countries remain
mainly Christian, they will celebrate the same holiday: the Bulgarian Velikden
will be the same as the American Easter. No time and space can remove the
common sensation of awe and holiness of the fete, nor will any political
or cultural prejudice disrupt the power of the common religion. Easter
will remain one and the same for all nations and people that have the same
creed – in Jesus Christ and His Resurrection.
1 Gabriela spent two years before coming to ACS in a school in San Diego and Los Angeles. She was the most valuable source for the comparison between the traditions of the two countries. In her opinion, the people treat the holiday in the same way, but they have different ways of expressing their awe and respect for the resurrection of Christ.
2 Pasch is celebrated in Romania, for example, and according to my mother, who is a Romanian, there is absolutely no difference in the ecclesiastical rules and celebrations for the whole family of Eastern Churches, even though the name comes from something else. And indeed, Pasch, as well as the French Paques and the Spanish Paschua are named according to ancient Jewish tradition, but are Christian in their core.
3 James Dimitrov was born in Indiana State, but lived mostly
in Sofia. His knowledge for the American traditions comes from his mother,
who tries to counteract the Bulgarian influence on her son. He thinks that
the traditions here are much more interesting than in his home country,
but unfortunately they are being replaced by foreign ones, just because
the Bulgarian nation is not religious enough and the Easter customs are
primarily old pagan ones.
56% Protestantism (160mil.)
23% Roman Catolicism(69mil.)
17% Other (inc. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christian denominations)
1% Other(inc. Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews)