Christian vs. Orthodox Easter: a brief insight

Gaudenzio Ferrari, Stories of The Life and Passion of Christ (1513)

Before we dive into the main differences concerning Easter celebrations in Orthodox and Catholic countries, it is important to have a look at the historical background that led to them.

As historians and history geeks may already know, in the Middle Ages Europe was referred to as Christianitas. And that was because Christianism was the one thing that all these different populations, that talked different languages and had different traditions, had in common.

That is not the case anymore, but the real turning point didn’t involve – as many might expect – the Arab conquests on the continent. Rather, it was because of the East-West Schism of 1054 – also known as the Great Schism, as opposed to the Western Schism or Great Occidental Schism.
While the former refers to the split of the Orthodox Churches – which are found in countries such as Russia, Serbia and Greece – from the Catholic one and the Pope authority, the latter indicates the Avignon Papacy (1309-1376).

The most obvious difference between Orthodox and Catholic Churches is the calendar they use. Most countries over the world use the so-called Gregorian calendar, and they do so because it is the most accurate rendition of the actual ‘solar’ year. On the other hand, the Julian calendar – used by Berbers and Orthodox Churches – is less accurate, since it ‘gains’ a day every 128 years.

However, both Catholics and Orthodox Christians use the same method in order to establish the day of Easter. It falls, in fact, on the Sunday after the first spring full moon – this year it is next Sunday, 17th April 2022, according to the Gregorian calendar and a week later for the Julian one.
But this isn’t the only, nor the most important, difference between Orthodox and Catholic Easter.

Before Easter comes, both Churches celebrate Lent. Its duration and the traditions related to it vary widely among different countries, but the most important differences imply the adherence to the Christian faith or to the orthodox doctrine of Eastern Orthodox Churches.

According to the Christian liturgical calendar, therefore in most Western Catholic countries, Lent lasts 40 days – from Ash Wednesday up until the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.
On the other hand, Orthodox Christians celebrate Lent six more days. Due to its longer duration, the Orthodox Lent is also called the Great Lent.

Since it is meant to remember and commemorate Jesus’s fast in the desert, this period implies limitations and some forms of abstinence and fasting in both religious traditions.
While Catholics must restrain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and for the following Fridays – the last one being Holy Friday, Orthodox Christians have to follow much stricter rules when it comes to the food they’re allowed to eat.
In fact, the Great Lent has Orthodox giving up meat, oil, and all products derived from animals – such as cheese, butter, eggs, and any other form of dairy.

This is the very reason why Russians celebrate Maslenitsa, which was originally a pagan holiday, but has later become part of the Orthodox liturgical calendar.
This festivity is celebrated throughout the week before the Great Lent starts, so it represents for Russian Orthodox their last chance to eat dairy until Easter. Therefore, Maslenitsa is also referred to as the “Week of the butter/dairy”.

Easter Monday is a public holiday in some countries over the world. Even though this festivity has religious origins, most celebrations have little to do with the spiritual part of it, for instance people in Italy usually have a picnic or barbecue with their friends and family.

For instance, in Poland – a mostly Catholic country —, the Easter Monday is called Smigus Dyngus (i.e., Wet Monday). During this day, guys throw water to girls, that have to wait until the next day to get their revenge.
A similar tradition exists in Hungary as well, where it is known as locsolkodás. Nowadays, however, guys tend to spray girls with perfume instead of throwing them buckets of water.

If you are interested in some more snippets of traditions around the world, have a look at this article: Greetings from all over the world.

Polyglot, stand-up enthusiast, Law student. 23, from Italy.

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