What Is Orthodox Easter? How to Explain the Religious Holiday to Kids
Experts explain why it's usually on a different day every year and offer fun and simple ways parents can involve their kids in celebrating Orthodox Easter 2021 which is on May 2.
Growing up Greek American, the question, "When is Easter this year?" always popped up once the warmer weather rolled around. I always looked forward to the traditions and food that came along with the holiday, but never really understood why I usually celebrated on a different day than other Americans who celebrated Easter. I'm sure kids today continue to wonder the same.
This year, Orthodox Easter falls on Sunday, May 2. Consider this your little guide to facts about the holiday and how to celebrate with your little ones.
What Is Orthodox Easter?
You might have heard the term Greek Easter, but Greeks are far from the only ones who celebrate Orthodox Easter. After Catholicism and Protestantism, Orthodoxy is the third largest branch of Christianity, according to the Pew Research Center, with about 260 million Orthodox Christians around the globe. Although the majority live in Europe, Orthodox Christians live in other parts of the world, including the Middle East and Africa.
Liturgically everything is typically the same but traditions may vary depending on the country a person is from. But put simply: Easter is a big deal for Orthodox Christians, even more so than Christmas, says George E. Demacopoulos, Ph.D., co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center and a professor of historical theology at Fordham University. "Everything about the Orthodox Christian calendar is focused on the resurrection of Jesus," he adds.
When Is Orthodox Easter Each Year?
Speaking of calendars, this focus on Jesus' resurrection is the reason Orthodox Easter falls on a separate day than Western Eastern. "Believe it or not, we actually are using the same rules," says Rev. Fr. Philip Zymaris, ThD, assistant professor of liturgics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Back when the churches were united, around the 4th Century, the rule was set that Easter would fall on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. That's around March 21 every year.
But Orthodox Christians are using the old calendar, or the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar, which a pope introduced in 1582. "We are using a phony date, that's not really an equinox," explains Rev. Fr. Zymaris. "We're using a date that's actually 13 days after March 21." One reason why? "There was a hesitancy to adopt that calendar just because it was invented by a pope," says Rev. Fr. Zymaris.
It's too late to turn back now. "At this point, the only reason they're still doing it is because it's unlikely that they could get the entire Orthodox world to go along with the change," says Dr. Demacopoulos.
How to Celebrate Orthodox Easter With Kids
Going to church, fasting for 40 days, and Holy Week, are guidelines for all Orthodox Christians. But including kids in other traditions can help them appreciate holidays more, carry on traditions, and even boost their development skills. Getting kids involved gives "children this message that something very special is going on," says Rev. Fr. Zymaris, "and that they're celebrating something that's bigger than themselves."
Here are some fun and easy ways to do that.
Eggs, which symbolize new life, are a notable part of Easter. And painting them is part of the tradition. While Greeks typically dye their hard-boiled eggs red, Russians get more artistic by drawing beautiful designs on them. Either route you take, getting kids involved in the egg painting tradition can be an enjoyable and creative activity. If handling dye is too much for younger kids, have them help out by drawing on theirs or adding stickers.
Kids can use the egg they decorated on Easter for the traditional egg tapping game where people tap their hard-boiled egg on another person's egg to try and crack it. Whoever ends up with their egg intact is said to have luck for the year.
As with any holiday, food takes center stage on Easter. Since learning to cook offers kids several benefits, including enhancing math skills, boosting confidence, and expanding their palates, getting them in the kitchen to prepare for the holiday is a great idea. It's also a wonderful bonding experience to boot.
Youly Diamanti-Karanou, a mom of three (ages 14, 13, and 8), encourages bringing kids into the kitchen to help make traditional foods. This year her daughter helped her make traditional cookies and sweet breads—she saved the more complicated foods to do on her own. "On the one hand, cooking is a creative activity," says Diamanti-Karanou, a presbytera (priest's wife) and a political scientist and assistant teaching professor in the international affairs program at Northeastern University. "On the other hand, it's a matter of learning and preserving traditions."
Orthodox Christians have a "holy fire" ceremony on the night before Easter to symbolize Jesus' resurrection where the priest lights a fire and then spreads it to all in attendance—hence why candles are needed. Parents can get creative with their little ones and decorate candles together, says Xanthippi Zymaris, a mom of five, a presbytera, and Greek school teacher in Massachusetts. She says kids can decorate with ribbons and flowers; they can paint or draw on them and even hang a little toy with a string. And for kids who are gifted these candles from their godparents each Easter, they can make them for other family members.
Zymaris says it was always important for her to teach her now adult kids their faith and traditions, but vocalizing lessons isn't always the best way. "It's usually through hands-on activities," she says, "that parents can get the kids interested."