Easter is the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. It’s usually considered the most important holiday on the Christian calendar, acting as the culmination of the Lenten season (“Lent”) and the Passion of Christ. People who celebrate Easter celebrate it like many other holidays, with the gathering of families, eating too much, and fun activities for the kids. The religious nature of the holiday adds a focus on attending church services, prayer, and religious observations.
As you know from our articles on Halloween and Christmas, we love looking at the history behind holidays and the ways we celebrate them. Some of the traditions of Easter are especially interesting, since they seem to have very little connection to the events of the Christian Easter story. Many Easter traditions Christians have, like attending church, the washing of the feet, or flying Good Friday kites, are clearly tied to the Christian Easter story. Other traditions, like the Easter Bunny, have murkier backstories and are tied with older beliefs.
The origins of Easter are incredibly foggy, but a widely accepted pagan origin can be traced back to one ancient European story. This legend is that of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, or Ostara, who was believed to be a goddess of the spring.
The Anglo-Saxons held a celebratory festival to honor this goddess during the month of Eosturmonath, which corresponds to the modern month of April. The existence of Eostre is somewhat controversial, since most evidence of this goddess comes from an eighth century monk named Bede, and no other ancient references discuss her specifically. One reason for this controversy could be down to a folktale tradition, where little was written down and a lot was shared through storytelling. At the same time, it’s possible Eostre and her spring festival has had some influence in why we call Easter by its name.
For one, English (Easter) and German (Ostern) are the only two European languages that have a different etymological root. This makes sense since English evolved from a German dialect. (England originally translated to “Land of the Angles.”) However, the other major European languages get their word for Easter from a translation of the Latin for Passover, “paschae” (listed below). Given the differences and an established tradition of adopting pagan day names into English (example: Thursday was “Thor’s Day”), we can make a linguistic argument for Easter relating to Eostre.
|Language||Word for Easter|
|Spanish||Pascua de Resurrección|
Like many spring festivals, the topic of rebirth and fertility are central in Eosturmonath, when the world begins reawakening after winter. As the days grow longer and warmer, it’s easy to see how Spring became a symbol for rebirth and renewed life in cultures around the world. These themes permeate many of the traditions that we associate with Easter today.
Okay, so that’s possibly why we call it Easter, but what about the most confounding tradition of Easter: celebrating a fictional, egg-laying rabbit? According to Bede (and later Jacob Grimm of the Brothers Grimm fame), the hare was a symbol related to Eostre. One popular legend, as reported in Scientific American, firmly establishes this connection. Ostara (Eostre) was a friend to children and transformed a bird into a rabbit to delight children. This bird-turned-rabbit laid brightly colored eggs, which Eostre gave as gifts to the children.
The legend of Ostara turning a bird into an egg-laying rabbit to delight children is one possible origin of the Easter Bunny.
Outside of the controversial Eostre, hares and rabbits were still often symbols of fertility in ancient and medieval times due to their prodigious ability to reproduce. In fact, rabbits were so tied to their reproductive abilities that some cultures, like the Greeks, believed they could reproduce without breeding. As Christianity developed, this ancient belief tied rabbits to the Virgin Mary, who was often depicted in art with a hare or rabbit.
We do know that the Easter Bunny most likely comes from a German tradition of celebrating the Osterhase, or Easter Hare. The tradition is believed to have come to the United States in the 1700s with the wave of German immigrants. From here, the Osterhase evolved into the Easter Bunny we know and celebrate today.
Finally, what is the Easter connection to colorful eggs? Following the theory that Easter comes from Eostremonath, the bird turned rabbit lays bright eggs which are given to children as gifts, so it’s easy to see that story’s influence. But, eggs have been a symbol of rebirth for a long, long time, especially in religions like Christianity. Coloring eggs goes a long way back as well, with the earliest records dating back 2,500 years to the Persians and their celebration of the Persian New Year, which happens around the start of spring. In Europe, evidence of colored eggs comes from King Edward I, who gave around 450 colored eggs to royal relatives at Easter.
Coloring eggs goes all the way back 2,500 years to the Persians and their celebration of the Persian New Year.
In more specifically Christian traditions, eggs symbolize Jesus rising from his tomb into new life, much like a chick leaving the egg. This symbolism was used in the Christian story of the first Easter egg, which says Mary Magdalene met with Roman Emperor Tiberius and proclaimed “Christ is risen” while holding out an egg. In the legend, Tiberius retorted that Christ is no more risen than that egg is red. The egg immediately turned bright red, shocking the Emperor.
Ancient Christians would also abstain from eating eggs and meat during Lent. Throughout this time, people would decorate the eggs they weren’t allowed to eat. Once Easter arrived, the eggs would be feasted upon to mark the occasion. Sticking with the culinary angle, eggs are also an important dish at a Passover Seder — which is what many agree the Last Supper was — and tightly connected to Easter by early Christians. (Some individuals even celebrated the two holidays together.)
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We could easily go on explaining traditions of Easter. The more we dug into the ancient past of Easter, the more we found to dissect and learn. For a holiday that doesn’t crack the top three (Christmas, Halloween, and Thanksgiving) for many people, there are centuries of traditions and controversies and beliefs. What our research also continues to teach us is that holidays are always evolving, much like our understanding of them should. Happy Easter, everyone!
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