Friday, April 6, 2012

Origins of Easter

I had a request to do a blog post similar to my post "Understanding Christmas" about the origins of many of our Easter traditions as we approach Easter Sunday.  In many ways, the way Easter has evolved both religiously and secularly is similar to how Christmas has developed over the centuries.  Like Christmas, Easter has many traditions and symbols that pre-date Christianity and are rooted in ancient paganism.  Also like Christmas, it wasn't a simply matter of the early Christian Church inserting a Christian holiday in place of a Pagan one; rather, it was a gradual association of Pagan symbolism and tradition with the Christian holiday simply because the two occurred around the same time.  What I intend to focus on here are the most visible secular symbols of Easter: the Easter Bunny and the Easter Egg, both of which seemingly have no connection to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I'll also touch on the name of Easter and the reasoning behind its date.

The first thing that always seems to throw people for a loop is the date of Easter.  Every year it's on a different day and can be anywhere from late March to late April.  What gives?  Easter is different from most holidays because it's not a fixed day like Christmas, Valentine's Day, Independence Day, etc. are.  Instead, Easter is based on a "lunisolar" calendar, similar to the way Passover is determined in Judaism.  Basically, the cycles of the moon are included in the calculations where our typical measure of time on our Gregorian calendar is made using the Sun.  The rule for Easter (which seems to be first established in 325 AD at the First Council of Nicaea but was debated many times after) is that it's the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox (first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere).  Because the spring equinox is March 20 or 21, Easter cannot happen before then.  Easter and Passover are normally celebrated very close to each other (according the the Bible, the events celebrated in Easter happened during Passover), but because the calendar used by the western world (Gregorian calendar) is not identical to the Hebrew calendar (Passover starts on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan), the two holidays occasionally are weeks apart.  While Passover is a fixed day in the Hebrew calendar, because of the way the Hebrew calendar is determined and measured, it appears to move around when compared to the Gregorian calendar.  For your info, next year, Easter will be on March 31st again, which last happened in 2002.

The next thing about Easter that is confusing on the surface is the name itself.  Where on earth is the name "Easter" from and what does it have to do with the Resurrection of Christ?  From what I can find, the name Easter is derived from the Pagan goddess Eostre.  The ancient Anglo-Saxons worshiped Eostre, who was the goddess of fertility and "new beginnings", during the springtime.  Her symbol was the rabbit, since the rabbit is a symbol of fertility, as are eggs.  In other languages, the word for "Easter" is the same word as "Passover" (based on the Latin "Pascha" from the Hebrew "Pesach").  Why did English adopt a pagan word for this holiday?  From what I have read it was simply due to the fact that the two events were at the same time of the year, so it simply evolved from common usage.  One source mentioned that the ancient month for the goddess Eostre (also spelled Eastre), known as Eostremonat ("Eostre's month") was at the same time as April.  As Christianity replaced Paganism as the dominant religion, it is natural that many of the wordings and cultural traditions would carry over, similar to many of the symbols associated with Christmas.  In many Christian churches and movements, they will refer to Easter as "Resurrection Day" as a way to avoid using a Pagan name.

Eostre seems to be the source for the most common Easter symbols: the Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs.  Both of them are ancient symbols of fertility and re-birth that pre-date Christianity by hundreds, even thousands, of years, and thus were used by the Anglo-Saxons in association with Eostre and the spring festivals in her honor.  Even so, they were not used in any way similar to how we use the Easter Bunny or Easter Eggs, but it does explain where the idea came from.  The legend of the Easter Bunny bringing eggs to children seems to come from Germany with the earliest mention being in the 1500s.  What I found interesting about the early use of the Easter Bunny was that kids would make "nests" for the rabbit (where we get our "Easter grass") using their hat (boys) or bonnet (girls) and later using sticks in their garden.  They would put them in secluded places and then go and find them the next morning.  Of course this has now evolved into using Easter baskets instead.  The German custom seemed to be a way to help their children be better behaved similar to Santa Claus, since the Easter Bunny would only bring these colorful eggs to good kids.  When German immigrants came to the United States, they brought this tradition with them, though it wasn't until after the Civil War that we see the emergence of the Easter Bunny and Easter in general as any kind of major holiday celebrated around the country.  Christmas is similar in that it wasn't widely celebrated early in the history of the US simply because it was considered British.  The German immigrants also introduced making pastry bunnies and later, chocolate bunnies.

As for the Easter Egg, as I mentioned, were long symbols of fertility and re-birth associated with Spring.  In the Middle Ages, eggs were forbidden during Lent, so any that were laid during Lent were boiled or preserved in some other way.  At the end of Lent, eggs were a major part of the menu and were a seen as a wonderful gift for children and even servants.  Early Easter Eggs were sometimes decorated with gold leaf or were dyed in colors boiled from flower petals.  Over time, different kinds of candy have been added along with eggs (does anyone still put real eggs in their Easter baskets anymore?).

Of course there are other symbols and traditions that are associated with Easter, but these are the biggest ones.  In doing this little study of the history of Easter, it's interesting to come to understand how everything came to be and how the Pagan symbols were worked into a Christian holiday.  In the end, Easter is just like Christmas in that it has a very serious religious side (the Resurrection of Christ) and a very secular side.  Both Christmas and Easter have elements of Paganism in them (though hardly anyone uses the symbols as they were originally intended or even thinks about the original symbolism), but they also have the general recognition of when they take place.  Easter is generally associated with spring because that's when it happens.  Christmas is generally associated with winter because that's when it happens too (and yes, even in the Southern Hemisphere I've heard of people viewing a "White Christmas" as basically the iconic Christmas even though in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas occurs at the beginning of summer!).  As such, many of the symbols and traditions associated with Christmas and Easter on the secular side are more appropriately associated with the season rather than the religious aspect and as I said before, no longer have any Pagan association to the average person.  I imagine that like any convert, these early converts to Christianity from Paganism over 1,000 years ago didn't just wholesale drop all their customs and beliefs, but sought to make sense of what they knew compared to that they were learning in their new religion and it gave them new meaning to some of their previous beliefs.  I can also see why there was an association with a Pagan spring holiday and the Resurrection since both have rebirth and renewal at their core.

Personally, I love many of the Easter traditions (especially the candy and chocolate!!!) :).  Does it lessen the religious aspect of Easter?  Hardly.  I'm also a big proponent of having Sacrament Meeting on Easter be a little more special than your average weekly meeting (we do it for Christmas, why not Easter?) with extra music and talks.  But just like Christmas, it's not like I only think about the wonder of the Resurrection ONLY at Easter, so why can't I enjoy some of the cultural fun that has developed alongside the religious rite?  The fun, secular side of Easter is part of our culture and there is nothing wrong with having fun, especially when so many of the secular traditions associated with Easter involve spending time with family (Easter dinner, Easter egg hunts, doing Easter baskets, decorating eggs, etc.).   How can that be bad or negative?  Yes, you CAN take part in the secular aspects of Easter and still not lose any of the value or meaning of the religious side.  It's a matter of balance just like anything.  Just like with Santa Claus, my parents also did the Easter Bunny thing and would you believe I STILL go to church and still believe in the Resurrection and have a testimony of the Atonement?

For more on Easter and its history see the Wikipedia articles on Easter, Easter Bunny, Easter customs, and Eostre, as well as:
I also found a great answer for the calendar question on Yahoo answers (it has sources): "Why didn't Passover and Easter coincide this year?" (2008)