What Is Good Friday and Why Do We Celebrate It?

If you weren't raised as a Christian—or didn't pay close attention in Sunday school—you might not all the details about this important day.

Every Christian knows the tale: Jesus Christ died and rose again for the forgiveness of his followers’ sins, promising them eternal life in heaven. Christians typically celebrate Jesus’s resurrection each spring on Easter Sunday. But Good Friday, which falls three days before Easter, doesn’t get the same attention: Only 12 states consider Good Friday an official holiday, and many people don’t know why they observe it to begin with. So what’s up with Good Friday?

Simply put, Good Friday is set aside for Christians to remember and mourn Jesus’s death. It was on this day that religious leaders arrested Jesus for claiming to be the son of God and King of the Jews, as the biblical story goes. The leaders sentenced Jesus to crucifixion, the highest form of criminal punishment at the time, for his teachings. Jesus was then beaten, forced to carry a heavy wooden cross through jeering crowds, and finally nailed to the cross by his wrists and feet where he hung until he died.

Given its grim origins, calling this holiday “Good Friday” probably sounds counterintuitive. But the word “good” has a different meaning here. In this context, it “designates a day on (or sometimes a season in) which religious observance is held,” Fiona MacPherson, senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), told the BBC. Put another way, the term refers to “a day or season observed as holy by the church,” per the OED. Find out more surprising things you didn’t know about Good Friday.

So despite its name, Good Friday is a day for somber reflection. Each Friday before Easter, Christians solemnly honor the way Jesus suffered and died for their sins. They might attend a service that recounts Jesus’s painful crucifixion, and some even refrain from eating to show their sorrow. Churches strip their altars bare and muffle their bells as a sign of mourning, according to Catholic.org.

But Christians soon turn to happier festivities: On the following Sunday, they celebrate Easter—the day of Jesus’s resurrection—with joyful songs and family gatherings. Now that you know why we celebrate Good Friday, check out these myths and legends about the most popular Easter traditions.

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Brooke Nelson
Brooke Nelson is a researcher at PBS FRONTLINE in Boston, Massachusetts, and writes regularly about travel, health, and culture news for Reader’s Digest. Previously she was a staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her articles have also appeared on MSN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance, among other sites. She earned a BA in international relations from Hendrix College. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeTNelson.