On Easter Sunday, on any given year other than this, people dress in new finery and go to church services celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Bouquets of fresh flowers — usually lilies (to denote resurrection) and daffodils — lend a splash of color to end the gray, dreary winter season. Soon after church children take part in Easter egg hunts and happily gorge themselves on chocolate and other goodies dropped off by that most wonderful of mythical creatures (created by dentists?) the Easter Bunny.
Yes, Easter is perfectly timed, especially for those of us who live in the frozen tundra, since it combines the date we celebrate the resurrection of Christ with the rebirth of the nature around us. But although Easter is a Christian holiday the way we celebrate it — including the name of the holiday itself — has connections to paganism.
Easter, which used to be known as Resurrection Sunday, always takes place at the end of Lent. Lent is a period of 40 days of fasting, prayer, and repentance (that many Christians no longer observe… of which I too am guilty). The last week of Lent is Holy Week.
Holy Week, also known as “Passion Week,” begins with Palm Sunday, the day Jesus entered Jerusalem and was celebrated by his followers who threw palms at his feet. A few days later, on Holy Thursday, Jesus, during the Last Supper, observed Passover by having a meal of bread and wine with his disciples. This is when he predicted that one of them would betray him. (Passover is the day the Jews commemorate their freedom and exodus from Egypt. The eating of bread and wine is a rite that is still followed by Catholics.)
Later on Holy Thursday, Jesus is indeed betrayed by Judas Iscariot. He was arrested while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and handed over to the Jewish high priests for 30 pieces of silver. He is tried, scourged, and brought to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who eventually condemns him to death.
Jesus is sentenced to die on the cross, crucified while still alive, like a common criminal. That is Good Friday. His mourners place his body in a tomb the next day (Holy Saturday) and when they return the next day, his tomb is empty. Jesus has been resurrected… Easter Sunday.
Easter is generally celebrated by sunrise services and the Easter Vigil in some parts of Christianity. The Orthodox Church celebrates Easter 13 days later since their dogma is based on the Julian calendar.
The Easter egg is a Christian symbol of new life and rebirth and the initial coloring of eggs was reportedly based on a practice of one of the earliest Christian populations of Mesopotamia, which colored the eggs red to symbolize the blood of Christ.
Nowadays eggs are painted in different patterns and colors. Many, a sign of the holiday’s commercialization, substitute the eggs themselves for plastic or chocolate ones filled with candy (or my personal kryptonite Cadbury creme eggs).
In the late 1800s dress and suit makers came out with their spring collections and the advent of the Easter Parades was born.
The Easter Bunny is thought to be a German creation. It brings the gifts of spring and rebirth to children. But its origin is tied to a pagan ritual in which the hare, coming out of its lair, symbolizes rebirth. The Christians adopted the animal to symbolize Christ’s resurrection.
But what of the name itself… Easter. Although the words origins are disputed, one scholar, Bede, an eighth-century monk, suggested that the word may have come from the Anglo-Saxon Eeostre or Eastre. He states that Eostre was an English month, corresponding to April. The month “was once called after a goddess of [the Anglo-Saxons] named Ēostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month.” She was a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility
This year, we will celebrate Easter differently as our churches will be empty and our celebrations confined to our immediate families. Hopefully, the holiday will find us all healthy and safe.
But as you celebrate Easter remember that it has a dose of paganism thrown in it.