All around the world, Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, known in America as “Easter.”
But how did we come to call this holiday "Easter"? And then there's that crazy-looking bunny, and why there are all those decorated eggs?
What do any of these things have to do with the Resurrection? Not a lot.
"The story of Easter is not simply a Christian story. Not only is the very name 'Easter' the name of an ancient and non-Christian deity; the season itself has also, from time immemorial, been the occasion of rites and observances having to do with the mystery of death and resurrection among peoples differing widely in race and religion.” - Easter: its Story and Meaning, by Alan W. Watts, 1950.
Where does the name “Easter” come from?
It might be a surprise to find that the name of Christianity's most sacred holy day most likely takes its roots directly from the name(s) of a pagan goddess.
In Europe, the feast of the dawn goddess Eostre (also Eastre, Ostara, and a variety of other spellings, depending upon location), was typically celebrated on the first full moon after the spring equinox.
Thus, what we now call “April” was once called “Eosturmonath” or “Eostre-month” on the Germanic calendar, in about the 8th century, the Venerable Bede tells us.
By comparison, Western Christians celebrate Easter on the first Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox, or March 21.*
This was still the very early days of Christianity, and other, older, religions were still flourishing. Church officials were not unaware of this, and co-opting an existing pagan holiday served the purpose of sowing the seeds of a new religion on existing faith.
In the east, the festival of Ishtar (correctly pronounced 'Easter') and the resurrection of Tammuz also took place shortly after the equinox.
The Basic Story
Whether Tammuz/Ishtar, Attis/Cybele, or Adonis/Aphrodite or another of a multitude of names depicting the same archetype, worshipers began to fast shortly before the spring equinox and abstain from meat for 40 days.
Some would cut down a tree or limb, which would be brought to the temple, or in some cases, the figure brought to a sacred tree, and upon its central trunk would be hung the figure of the young god. In the case of Tammuz, the 'tree' was more of a built 'T', incidentally the true shape of 'crosses' used for crucifixions during Roman times.
During the last days of the fast, the faithful gathered to sing hymns of mourning, and when it was finally over, the figure was taken down and buried at dusk, and the mourning continued well into the night.
As dawn approached, a great fire was lit and ...
"The sorrow of the worshipers was turned to joy ... The tomb was opened: the god had risen from the dead; and as the priest touched the lips of the weeping mourners with balm, he softly whispered in their ears the glad tidings of salvation. The resurrection of the god was hailed by his disciples as a promise that they too would issue triumphant from the corruption of the grave. On the morrow ... the divine resurrection was celebrated with a wild outburst of glee. At Rome, and probably elsewhere, the celebration took the form of a carnival...” - The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer, 1922.
So what about the eggs and that crazy bunny?
We forget today, when we can go to the supermarket any time and pick up a dozen, that eggs once were a seasonal commodity. In nature, birds don't lay eggs year 'round. Their egg-laying cycles are regulated by amount of daylight, and when days grow short, so do fresh eggs.
When does laying season begin? You guessed it, after the vernal equinox. And chickens, if they were free-range, at that this time of year would hide them everywhere. Yes, even in the grass.
But there's no Easter chicken—so do the bunnies lay the eggs?
Well, actually, according to myth, at least one does. And it's a hare, not a rabbit.
In Europe, the hare is a nocturnal creature—until mating season, that is. Then, there are bunnies all over the place all day, in a frenzy of fertility.
The totem of Eostre is a hare—and according to the story, the goddess can turn into a hare at will. In one legend, the goddess comes upon an injured bird, who she saves by turning into a hare, it being the animal she is strongest as. Yet, having been a bird, this hare could still lay eggs, and in gratitude to the goddess, the bird laid colored eggs on her feast day ever since.
If all that isn't enough, there's always the German Osterhase, literally, the “Easter Hare” in English, brought to America with the German settlers in the 1700s. In a variation of the above legend, Eostre changed her pet bird into a hare that could lay colored eggs to amuse children, of whom she is particularly fond.
Have a happy Easter.
*(Orthodox Christians use the Julian calendar and Easter often falls a week later as a result.)
Editor's note: This article previously was published by Easton Patch in Easton, PA. Easton Editor's note: This piece (2011) and was so popular, I thought we'd bring it back again for another year.