Leading article: Easter – the rite of spring

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Today is Easter Sunday, for Christians the greatest feast of the year, the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. It may seem remarkable that a society that is in so many ways cut off from the cycle of the seasons still stops for a holiday timed to coincide with the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring equinox – for that is how, in simple terms, the Church calculates Easter – but it lends a pleasingly nonconformist character to one part of the year.

And, like Christmas, the festival of Easter chimes with the mood of the season. The Resurrection, which celebrates renewed life, has a resonance with nature. Even in the most urban parts of Britain, in which most of us actually live, there is a celebratory aspect to this time of year. New life is in evidence all around us, with trees bursting into leaf, native spring flowers in bloom and birds nesting and singing, even in city gardens and parks.

The Venerable Bede may, according to some contemporary historians, have been simply mistaken when he wrote that the very word Easter derives from an Anglo Saxon goddess, Eostre, but this time of year did at least mean, in pre-Christian times, the season of beginnings, and that is exactly how it feels. In medieval times, people cleaned their houses and decorated them with greenery and flowers in honour of the feast – perhaps an early version of spring cleaning – but we too, cut off from nature as many of us are, still feel the need for some rite of spring. And that is precisely what Easter is, in both religious and secular terms. The Puritans tried to suppress Easter, like they tried to suppress Christmas. In both cases they failed, and with good reason, because the feast answered a common human need.

Granted, Easter has changed its character in recent decades – and indeed, centuries. What was once a communal and religious festival in which, pre-Reformation, the celebrations were shared by all, has become a largely private and familial affair. But that, at least, is something worth treasuring: in a work environment that is now, in particular, so insecure and highly pressurised, it is something to be prized that we have a time to draw breath together in a holiday sanctified by tradition and still guaranteed by law. Indeed, those readers who like to extend the Easter holidays for another week might like to remind their employers and colleagues that once the season lasted until Hock Monday, the second Monday after Easter, when groups of young people would capture and hold a member of the opposite sex, until they paid a small ransom. Women in particular, seemed to have engaged in the custom with gusto for some reason.

Easter may be for many the start of the DIY, gardening or barbecue season, and while many in modern Britain are not believing Christians, Easter brings with it a happy paradox. A national holiday does pull people together. It is rare to hear anyone say we should abolish Easter and replace it with two secular bank holidays. Even among the keenest atheists, it arouses much less antagonism than Christmas. There is a fondness for it.

A survey some months ago suggested that those belonging to non-Christian religions are more than happy to honour the traditions of the Christian church, often to a greater degree than the mass of the population. Respect for one tradition need not come at the expense of others. There is, surely, a small message here about respecting diversity and not assuming that stability must come from a homogenous, secularist mindset. While muscular atheism has many eloquent adherents and will claim reason on its side, it has a long way to go before all liberals are atheists.

For many of us, this is a chance to engage with nature at what is, perhaps, the loveliest time of the year. A long weekend like this is an opportunity to take a real holiday, perhaps to go outdoors, to reconnect with the seasons, from which, in urban areas, many of us become unnaturally detached. Readers who live in rural communities are privileged to be in touch with the coming of spring because it happens under their nose; their city friends may well find this a chance to experience the season properly in a foray to the countryside. On the whole, Britons have fewer public holidays than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe: it makes this festival a particularly welcome, communal break.

For some, Easter is a time of celebration, for others, an anachronism built on a myth. But at the very least it marks a milestone in the calendar, a revived sense of hope at this season, the celebration of new beginnings. And in that sense, as we share what is both a religious and universal celebration, we wish our readers a very happy Easter.