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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter! Or Should I Say Happy Eostre?

Easter Bunny sighting? No, a brown hare at Sacremento National Wildlife Refuge.

Easter is a holiday I've never really understood. While I've always enjoyed chocolate candies and jellybeans on Easter Sunday, what do bunnies and eggs and candy have to do with the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ? Yesterday I decided to find out by doing a little internet research. While there's controversy surrounding the history of Easter, this seems to be the prevailing story.

Early Christians, seeking widespread acceptance of their new religion, tried to coincide many of their holidays with preexisting pagan celebrations. As a result, many pagan traditions became adopted as part of Christian holidays. The Christian timing of the rise of Christ happened to coincide with the pagan festivals of Eostur-monath, a month of the Germanic calendar which roughly coincides with April that was meant to celebrate the mother goddess Eostre, a symbol of fertility in the lush season of spring. The word eventually became Eastre, and then Easter.

Rabbits/hares and eggs are ancient symbols associated with fertility, eggs by their very nature and rabbits by their springtime abundance and ability to breed. These symbols have long been incorporated into traditions to celebrate the renewal that is the coming of spring, including being part of celebrations of Eostre. Another example is of egg decorating being part of a Persian ritual associated with the spring equinox. Easter was also about renewal to the Christians, through the resurrection of Christ, so all the symbols eventually became associated.

European folklore tells stories about egg-laying hares, a myth that probably gave rise to the Easter Bunny, another concept of Germanic origin in the 1600s (though European tradition states the Easter Bunny is a hare, not a rabbit). Hares raise their young in a hollow in the ground rather than a burrow, and plovers and lapwings lay eggs in similar looking structures in the same sort of habitat, which likely led to the belief that rabbits might lay eggs.

The early concept of the Easter Bunny was that children would make a nest hidden in their house, and if they were good then in the morning it would be filled with colored eggs, candy and treats. It's not hard to see how that tradition became the Easter egg hunt.

So the result of all this religious and secular history is a holiday that is a mishmash of symbols and traditions. At least now I know why we get to eat chocolate and decorate eggs on Easter.


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

One of the main reasons early Christians used the existing pagan festivals was to be able to celebrate wihout drawing undue attention to themselves and ending up being fed to the lions...or worse. Cunning hey.
Enjoy those chocky eggs

Heather said...

A very educational post Monika - thanks! Not being religious myself, and feeling like the eggs and candy stuff is for kids (although I certainly eat the candy!), Easter holds no particular significance for me. I would rather "celebrate" the equinox as the arrival of spring, myself.

Monika said...

Cunning indeed! The eggs are very tasty.

Heather - I'm with you; Easter doesn't hold much personal significance for me either. It was when I got a bag of chocolate eggs in the mail from my parents that curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to figure out what it was all supposed to be about!