Today is Easter Sunday, a big day in the Christian calendar when they celebrate the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. But why is it called ‘Easter’? And what’s with all the bunnies and painted (and chocolate) eggs that have now come to symbolize this day? Brent Landau explains some little-known facts about the holiday and says that like with Christmas, Easter has a lot of pagan elements folded in, starting with why it is celebrated in the springtime, specifically the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox.
For those in northern latitudes, the coming of spring is often met with excitement, as it means an end to the cold days of winter.
Spring also means the coming back to life of plants and trees that have been dormant for winter, as well as the birth of new life in the animal world. Given the symbolism of new life and rebirth, it was only natural to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at this time of the year.
The naming of the celebration as “Easter” seems to go back to the name of a pre-Christian goddess in England, Eostre, who was celebrated at beginning of spring.
In early America, the Easter festival was far more popular among Catholics than Protestants. For instance, the New England Puritans regarded both Easter and Christmas as too tainted by non-Christian influences to be appropriate to celebrate. Such festivals also tended to be opportunities for heavy drinking and merrymaking.
The fortunes of both holidays changed in the 19th century, when they became occasions to be spent with one’s family. This was done partly out of a desire to make the celebration of these holidays less rowdy.
From the 17th century onward, there was an increasing recognition of childhood as a time of life that should be joyous, not simply as preparatory for adulthood. This “discovery of childhood” and the doting upon children had profound effects on how Easter was celebrated.
It is at this point in the holiday’s development that Easter eggs and the Easter bunny become especially important. Decorated eggs had been part of the Easter festival at least since medieval times, given the obvious symbolism of new life. A vast amount of folklore surrounds Easter eggs, and in a number of Eastern European countries, the process of decorating them is extremely elaborate. Several Eastern European legends describe eggs turning red (a favorite color for Easter eggs) in connection with the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Yet it was only in the 17th century that a German tradition of an “Easter hare”bringing eggs to good children came to be known. Hares and rabbits had a long association with spring seasonal rituals because of their amazing powers of fertility.
When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought this tradition with them. The wild hare also became supplanted by the more docile and domestic rabbit, in another indication of how the focus moved toward children.
The chocolate eggs and rabbits and other fun things seem more reasonable than some of the more gruesome forms of Good Friday observance where people actually nail themselves to crosses and other forms of self-flagellation to recreate what they think happened to Jesus.