Easter: A Mix of Ancient Traditions

Easter in modern days has been highly commercialized, as many religious or Christian holidays. However, this celebration still keeps an interesting mix of its pagan and Christian traditions. In fact, it's also been worked into some Jewish family traditions, as it comes around the time of the 8-day Passover feast. Let's start with the very beginning of this springtime holiday.

In the second century the ancient Anglo-Saxons who lived up north, celebrated the return of spring and fertility with a festival on the day of the vernal equinox. This festival commemorated their mythological goddess of offspring and springtime, called 'Ostra,' 'Ostern' or 'Eastre'. When second century Christian missionaries came across these pagan tribes, they started trying to convert them. The Christians decided to take an easier and slower approach in order to create an easy transition, and also to not get killed. They allowed the pagans to keep holding their feasts, but in a gradually more Christian manor.

The pagan festival of Eastre happened to coincide with the same time of year as the Christian observance of Christ's Resurrection. It was a smooth alteration then, to change the feast into a Christian celebration as they slowly converted the pagans. The old name of the goddess, Eastre, morphed over time into its modern spelling, Easter. Early Christians, many being of Jewish origin, were brought up in the Hebrew tradition and saw Easter as a new feature of Passover. Many Jewish people still see Easter as a part of Passover.

The other transition that occurred between the ancient festival and modern Easter was the day it would be observed. Originally being on the day of the vernal equinox, this changed at the AD 325 Council of Nicaea, convened by Emperor Constantine. The Easter Rule was issued saying that Easter is to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. This means that it can be anytime between March 22 and April 25.

Easter now also marks the end of the Lenton period that begins on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras or, 'Fat Tuesday'. Those who fast or give up something in this 46-day period can once again resume their old food or habit! Naturally Easter is also a day to rejoice as it celebrates the rebirth not only of spring but of Jesus Christ from the dead. Many Christians worldwide dress up in their new, springtime, Sunday best and go to church on Easter Sunday.

Of course, for children, church usually comes after the popular Easter egg hunt, and after seeing what the Easter bunny brought for children. This brings us to two traditional Easter symbols that are both non-Christian in origin. First is the symbol of the Easter bunny, which is surprisingly not a modern day invention. For the ancient festival, pagans worshiped the goddess, Eastre, through her earthly symbol, the rabbit. The rabbit also symbolized new life and rebirth in ancient Egypt. We get the modern day tradition of an Easter bunny bringing eggs to children from an old German legend. The legend was that a poor woman decorated eggs for her children to find during a famine. When the kids found the eggs, they glanced up to see the big bunny hopping away!

Nowadays, unlike in ancient times, this Easter bunny has turned into a cute, often pastel colored fluffy character that brings children Easter Eggs. This brings us to our next symbol, the colored egg.& A common springtime ritual in ancient pagan tribes was to exchange eggs. The egg, for obvious reasons, is a symbol of rebirth and renewal. The pagan eggs were often presented in a gold leaf or colored brightly by boiling them with leaves and petals of flowers. Hence, the modern tradition of dyeing and painting eggs in all pastel colors. Naturally chocolate and other sweets have now taken on the egg, chick, rabbit or carrot form. And from this ancient tradition also comes the Easter egg hunt, or the leaving of a basket with Easter goodies.

It's really fascinating to see how this modern holiday is a convergence of pagan, Christian and Jewish traditions. Despite the commercialization of Easter, many still hold the religious part by attending to church.; Most also mix this spiritual aspect with the pagan symbols of eggs and rabbits, which is a fun addition. So, with this fresh knowledge of its origins, Happy Easter!




author: Charlotte Keesey

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