Easter in Ireland usually makes people think of two things: the Good Friday (and the old ban on alcohol that the day used to bring) and the ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916. The actual celebration of Easter as one of the most important days on the Christian calendar actually only comes to mind later. However, the religious meanings are the basis for the Sunday holiday - and Easter Monday is also a public holiday in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Why Easter is Celebrated
The word Easter comes from the Old English "Eostre", which may refer to the pagan goddess Ostara. Despite this potential pagan link, Easter is a central and important feast in the Christian calendar. The day marks the anniversary of Jesus' resurrection (rising from the dead) after his crucifixion on Good Friday and Easter Sunday is sometimes also called Resurrection Sunday. The historical Easter Sunday would have been in April of the year 33 AD - judging from an eclipse on Good Friday mentioned in the writings of the apostle Peter. Easter also marks the end of Lent, forty days of fasting and prayer.
Easter is, overall, somehow similar to the historically much earlier Jewish Passover feast (also celebrated in Ireland) - both in symbolism and in the calendar date. It is also connected with pre-Christian religious rites to celebrate the return of the fertile season. These would usually be celebrated on the vernal equinox or May Day (Bealtaine in Ireland), and use similar fertility symbols that are sometimes now associate with Easter, like the egg or the hare.
When Easter is Celebrated
Easter is a moveable feast - not fixed in our normal (non-religious) calendar. As a technical definition for how the date for Easter is decided: the First Council of Nicaea in 325 established the actual date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox (March 21st) in the northern hemisphere. Thus Easter may fall anywhere between March 22nd and April 25th in Western Christianity (Eastern Christianity still does not use the Gregorian Calendar to calculate the date, just to confuse matters a bit).
Preparing for Easter in Ireland
Most households will strive to have their spring cleaning finished by Easter Sunday. Not only to get it over with, but also to prepare for a visit by the local priest to bless the house. A tradition that is still alive in many rural areas.
For Catholics and other Christians, Good Friday is a quiet day (and it used to be a day when the sale of alcohol was banned) and no outdoor work should take place. This is a day for reflection and the preparation for Easter. Many believers will attend confession, but also have their hair cut and sometimes go shopping for new clothes for the coming Easter holiday. Eggs, which are traditionally not eaten during Lent, will be collected again from Good Friday on (but not eaten before Easter Sunday).
Holy Saturday may be observed through a vow of silence by many Catholic Irish. There are also special ceremonies in many churches for the blessing of holy water. The Easter Vigil starts at 10 pm in the local church - and all lights in the church are traditionally extinguished at 11 pm. Then the Paschal candle is lit and the new flame is presented to the altar as a symbol of the resurrection. Remember that Saint Patrick also squared off against the pagan High King by lighting a Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane.
A Typical Easter Sunday in Ireland
Easter Sunday in most homes is similar to other Sundays. Families get together and the religious ones would attend mass together in their local church. However, slightly larger than normal crowds tend to go to mass on Easter, and all are well dressed. In Ireland, it is the tradition to wear new clothes on Easter Sunday. Girls may also wear green hair ribbons, a yellow dress, and white shoes. These colors (and new clothes in general) are said to signify purity and a new start to life.
After attending mass, the family will head back home to start the Easter feast. This is very much like the traditional Sunday roast, but often lamb and ham, accompanied by generous servings of potatoes, vegetables, stuffing, bread, and butter. The feast can turn into quite a celebration at home because it also marks the end of lent, so alcohol tends to be a common drink during the main meal.
Easter Eggs were traditionally given to children after dinner and only if the lent fast was not broken. This has changed somewhat, and many families and groups now host Easter egg hunts early in the morning.
Other Irish Easter Traditions
Easter Symbols such lambs, spring flowers, eggs and birds (often chicks) are popular Irish Easter symbols, with the Easter Bunny having earned a place as well. This means that the weeks leading up to Easter tend to be filled with holiday-themed greeting cards, decorations, and chocolate bunnies.
Easter Egg Hunts were once a pagan fertility symbol, Easter eggs now form part of the holiday fun for kids. Saturday may be spent decorating Easter eggs (if you didn't buy the pre-cooked and pre-colored ones). Then the children will "hunt" for them on Sunday morning, after other family members have hidden them all over the house and garden.
Easter is also a day for games, though this is mainly in Northern Ireland. On Easter, you will find fun but fierce competitions involving things like rolling Easter eggs downhill, or running in an egg-and-spoon race. In Leinster, a major event is the Fairyhouse Festival, one of the most prestigious horse-racing events of the year.