It’s that time of the year when shops are selling chocolate eggs, bunnies, and various other chocolate animals. (You can get an Easter Bilby in Australia.) Churches hold special services, and nominal church goers make one of their twice-yearly visits. At this time also, the internet gremlins come out to shout that Easter is a pagan holiday really, so there!
Yes and no.
Eostre, so the venerable Bede tells us in his sixth century work ‘The Reckoning of Time’, was an Anglo-Saxon goddess who gave her name to the month of April, Eosturmonath. This has given rise to the long-held belief that Easter takes its name from this deity. However, Bede’s source is the only citation for this, and some believe that Eostre was an invention of his. For example, Jacob Grimm, writing in 1835, expressed some scepticism of Bede’s statement, instead citing the name Ostara as being the name given to the Easter festival in Germany and potentially being the name of a pagan goddess. Grimm states that the high German word ‘ostar’ refers to movement toward the rising sun, and postulates Ostara as a goddess of the dawn. His reasoning Seems to be just as speculative as Bede’s assumption.
There are a lot of arguments for and against the existence of Eostre or Ostara, and some researchers insist that the deity would have had to be of fertility rather than the dawn, tying in with the Spring being a time of rebirth, and explain why emerging Christianity would be happy to take over the name for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
Spring festivals certainly were, and still are, common around the world. It made sense for pre-industrial civilizations to cheer at the return of sunshine and warmth. In ancient Greece the Dionysan Festival was held every March. It showcased the best poets, but, as Dionysus was the god of wine, was also a booze-up. In Japan, people visit ancestral graves at Spring Equinox, and in south America, Mayans celebrate the return of the sun serpent. Spring has always traditionally been a time for rejoicing.
The connection of the rabbit or hare with Eostre or other fertility goddesses seems to have little basis. However, as a symbol of fertility their relevance is obvious, so it is not hard to believe that ancient people may have venerated them in the spring. Eggs would appear to have the same logical connection, that of new life. However, the first source for the Easter bunny was in Germany in the late sixteenth century, and it is referenced as an ‘old fable’. So, this unfortunately makes it impossible to know how old the oral tradition was, and whether it really pre-dated Christianity.
What does chocolate have to do with Easter, or hot cross buns? This question is actually much easier to answer as well as being clearly Christian. Before Easter there is Lent, and Lent was traditionally a time of fasting and prayer. In the past, in Christian communities, you were not supposed to eat rich foods during Lent, which included red meat, eggs, sweets and cakes. This was the origin of Shrove or Pancake Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, when the last of the sugar, butter, and so forth would be used up before the season of Lent. So once Easter arrived, the celebration included the foods that the faithful had denied themselves for forty days. After the introduction of chocolate, this of course was included, definitely coming under the heading of rich and decadent food. To this day we associate chocolate with special occasions, love and celebration. It seems appropriate for Easter.
The Bible talks a lot about renewal and rebirth. In John 3:3, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”. Nicodemus is confused by this comment, and Jesus goes on to explain this concept, drawing clear parallels between physical birth and spiritual rebirth. In 1 Peter 1:23, Peter says “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” There are many places where this connection, and this progression, are discussed: physical birth first, spiritual (and therefore eternal) rebirth next.
Easter occurs at around the same time as the Jewish Passover, as that is when Jesus was killed, and then rose to life. This is spring in the northern hemisphere, so it’s obvious parallels to fertility are clear. As life renews in the spring, so Jesus rose and gave us eternal life. It is unclear when it was first celebrated as a Christian festival. The first written references occur in the mid second century. It is believed Jewish Christians may have incorporated the celebration of Christ’s resurrection into the Passover.
It wasn’t unheard of for early Christians to set festivals at the time of pagan festivals. It was a way of easing a newly converted area into the new faith by allowing them the celebrations to which they were accustomed, just with a new focus. Christmas, for example, is set at the time mid-winter festivals would have taken place. Yule is an obvious one, as well as the Roman festival of Saturnalia. I have never understood the notion that this makes these celebrations somehow tainted. We are still celebrating God, after all.
Happy Easter, whether you celebrate or not. I hope you have something nice to do.
What do you do for Easter? Please share in the comments. As always, most of my information is from internet research, so if I’ve got anything wrong, let me know!