Easter history, traditions and practices
by ANNE BATTY
Easter has different meanings for different people. For Christians it is the high point of the Christian year, and for others it represents life’s renewal in the arrival of spring. For some it is just a time to celebrate with symbols like bunnies, colored eggs, candy and family dinners.
A study of the history of Easter reveals that some of the traditions practiced during this holiday evolved from symbols used in some early pagan religions. Easter celebrates Christ’s resurrection from the dead following his death on Good Friday, but it also coincides with the vernal equinox, a time of pagan celebrations that commemorate the arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature.
Further, scholars have suggested the traditions of Easter have roots in the Jewish celebration of Passover. The first disciples of Jesus were Jews and the first Christians, and therefore the first Easter celebrations were likely understood as a new form of commemorating the coming of the Messiah, a key component of Passover liturgy.
The word Easter comes from the words Oestre/Eostre/Ostara. Oestre was the Saxon goddess of the dawn and spring, and her name derives from the words for dawn, the shining light arising from the east. She was a symbol of fertility, and her presence was believed to be responsible for the flowering of plants and the birth of babies, both animal and human. The rabbit, well-known for its rapid reproduction, was her sacred animal.
But some popular Easter traditions have their roots in ancient Anglo-Saxon history.
History reports that prior to 325 AD Easter was celebrated on different days of the week, including Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In that year the Nicene Council (a group of bishops called together by Constantine) issued the Easter Rule, which states that Easter shall be celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon, or after the vernal equinox, or the first day of spring. Therefore, it was to be a “moveable” holiday celebrated only on a Sunday between the dates of March 22 and April 25, dates tied to the lunar cycle.
The Lenten Season
The Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) or “Carnival” is practiced around the world on the Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday. It was designed as a way to use up the fats (lard and shortening) in the house and forego certain foods or practices before the sacrifices of Lent began. The 40 days of Lent are a period of penitence, prayer, fasting and abstinence, as preparation for the most sacred remembrance of the church’s liturgical year.
The last week of Lent is called Holy Week. It begins with Palm Sunday, named for the palm-strewn, celebratory path Jesus took into Jerusalem prior to his crucifixion. It continues on Holy Thursday, commemorating Jesus’ last supper with his followers, then moves to Good Friday in memory of the crucifixion. Then Holy Saturday recalls the laying of Christ’s body in the tomb, finally culminating with the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.
But some popular Easter traditions have their roots in ancient Anglo-Saxon history. Sacred or secular, they all play their part in the celebration of this traditional holiday.
The Easter bunny is not a modern invention. Hares and rabbits have long been symbols of fertility. One legend states that Oestre, the mystical Saxon goddess of spring, found a wounded bird and turned it into a hare so it could survive the winter. When this very same hare found it could lay eggs, it made a gift of its eggs to the goddess who had protected it, and the “Easter bunny” was born.
German tales were also told of an “Easter hare,” who laid eggs for the children to find. These children made nests and set out carrots, hoping the hare would lay its colored eggs for them. Claiming it was the German immigrants who brought this legend to America, historians say it was highly ignored by other Christians until after the Civil War. In fact, historians maintain that Easter itself was not widely celebrated in America until after that time.
From the earliest times eggs were viewed as symbols of new life and fertility in most cultures, and they were often wrapped in gold leaf or colored brightly (boiling them with leaves or the petals of certain flowers), and given as gifts. When people first started giving eggs as offerings and gifts, they used birds’ eggs. These were painted bright colors to echo the vibrancy of the colors of spring after the darkness of winter.
Germans gave green eggs as gifts on Holy Thursday and decorated trees with hollow eggs, and in Greece eggs were dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ. But the most elaborate take on the tradition came from Russia where in the 1800s/1900s Russian Aristocracy commissioned the French jeweler Faberge to create an egg like no other. Fashioned from enamel and encrusted with the most dazzling jewels, these incredible eggs are worth millions today.
As a Christian sacred day, Easter is definitely a day to be celebrated. Traditions and family celebrations are important in our lives, as they are said to shape, define and describe us. Easter, coming as it does in beautiful spring, helps to renew and recreate our spirits.
ANNE BATTY is a freelance writer/editor living in San Clemente, CA. You can visit her blog at awriterrambles.com.