Only fifty percent of New Zealanders reported themselves as 'Christian' in the 2013 census. Despite this, the majority of the population happily goes on holiday during Easter and sales of Easter eggs and hot cross buns remain high. So what does Easter mean to New Zealanders in this day and age?
Most cultures and creeds in this country appear to have adapted Easter time to suit themselves.
For Christians, Easter is, the oldest Christian festival, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. It is the central event at the very heart of Christianity; so much so that St Paul considered that if Jesus had not been "raised" from the dead then the faith of those who follow Him would indeed be 'futile'. The Bible narrates Jesus's execution (Good Friday) and his miraculous resurrection three days later (Easter Sunday). While Good Friday is a day of mourning at Jesus's suffering and pain, Easter Sunday reflects His joyous resurrection.
Traditionally, Easter is the most important day of the Christian year. It marks the end of the Holy Week, and the climax of the forty days of Lent with its abstinences. Easter is also the beginning of the seven weeks leading to Pentecost that commemorates Jesus's ascension to Heaven. Christian celebrations and services include sermons, night vigils, passion plays, gifts, and special prayers and hymns.
This year the Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) and Orthodox churches (Greek, Russian, and so on) celebrate Easter at the same time, although in many years this is not the case. The word Easter may derive from Ostara, a spring goddess, and this northern hemispherical, seasonal fertility resonance is reflected in the 'new life' eggs and bunnies of popular culture.
Different churches and different cultures have generated a wide diversity of Easter practices. Many of these traditions are found here and New Zealand Christians who hail from the Middle East, Europe, the Philippines and the Pacific celebrate their own Easter traditions.
Easter overlaps this year with the Jewish Passover (Pesach). On Monday night, Jews sat down at family tables to celebrate Seder night, a celebration of their miraculous redemption from slavery in Egypt. They tasted the tears (salt water) of their enslaved ancestors, experienced the bitterness of their lives (bitter herbs, horseradish), ate the mortar (charoset: apples, dates, wine, and nuts) for the bricks of Pharaoh's cities they were forced to build, ate the flat bread, unleavened due to their hasty flight, and remembered the paschal lamb, once offered at the Jerusalem temple. Jesus became identified with this Passover sacrifice ('Christ, our Paschal lamb, has been sacrificed!') and Pascha is the name for Easter in many languages. Jesus and his disciples had their 'last supper' at a Passover feast, according to three of the Gospels, or the day before according to the other.
What of our Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and other communities? Increasingly we are more aware of the faiths of our fellow New Zealanders and while they might not celebrate Easter or Passover as a religious festival they do respect other religious traditions and can celebrate our growing religious diversity.
Finally, what of the more than a third of us who declare 'no religion'? We have an internationally high number of 'nones', those who do not identify with any faith or religious community. It is a mistake to assume that all 'nones' are ardent atheists, as studies show that some are simply religiously de-institutionalised, some generationally so. Many understand themselves to be spiritual and engage in religious practices, including prayer, meditation or other rituals. Some indeed celebrate Easter, albeit in unorthodox ways. Many, however, have few religious interests or inclinations and understand Easter to be a short week followed by a long weekend off work, coupled with chocolate eggs and rabbits.
Easter may well have been the original long weekend! For Christians, traditionally Easter was a 'Sabbath of Sabbaths', a day free of everyday work activities, a well-deserved break from labour.
Easter is now as much a secular, national holiday as a religious holy day for many New Zealanders, but it is still a welcome respite from everyday activities that allows us to reflect on our lives, mark our seasonal transitions, and enjoy a hot cross bun together.