10 Things You Didn’t Know About Easter (But Really Should)

Things You Didn't Know About Easter

If you are celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus, I’m sure that He wouldn’t mind if you hide a few Easter eggs for the kids. – Photo from http://traditionscustoms.com.

If Spring is here, can Easter be far behind? Or is it the other way around? Either way, the two are as entwined as roses and Valentine’s Day, as Halloween and pumpkins, as Winter and Christmas. That’s no accident, as you will see…

1. Easter falls on a different date each year. Have you ever wondered why that is? Technically, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full Moon after the Vernal Equinox. Kind of a weird way to determine a holiday for a monotheistic religion, don’t you think? How did this method of reckoning Easter’s date come about? It was a way to steal the thunder from another popular god, whose cult was Christianity’s biggest rival. The worship of Attis and Cybele was very popular in Rome as late as the 3rd century. Attis was a soter, or savior, god who was reborn each year. This resurrection was celebrated beginning on the Friday after the full moon after the Vernal equinox (now Good Friday). It culminated on the following Sunday -three days later. Since they were rivals, Christianity adopted the date for their soter and, once the Cybele cult faded, Christians had to keep the date since that was when everybody was used to celebrating the holiday.

2. The name, “Easter” comes from a goddess: Her name was Eostre and She was the Mother Goddess of the Saxons of Northern Europe. She was, according to Grimm (yes, one of those Grimms), “goddess of the growing light of spring.” One interesting theory posits that Eostre was the embodiment of the bright, growing half of the year while Holda was the cold, dark winter personified. The dates of Easter are so close to Walpurgisnacht that they may have been concurrent at one time, the night giving way to the first day of Summer. This would make Ostara (the German name for Her holiday) a time of transition. Early in the history of Christianity, many pagan observances were adapted for the new faith. The early missionaries discovered that it was easier to get converts to celebrate a new name than it was a new date.

3. There were several soter gods who were very similar to Jesus in pre-Christian cultures. Attis (as mentioned previously), Adonis, Tammuz, Dammuzi, Dionysos, Marduk, Amun and many others have a mythology that parallels that of Jesus. Now, some Christians will use the convenient “satan did it to confuse us” to explain these away. But many others are interested to learn about this phenomenon. Being born of a Virgin, hanging “between earth and sky,” dying and arising again after 3 days… these and other details occur in all stories of a savior god. I won’t go into more detail here (don’t have the room!) but the book, Pagan Christs by by John M. Robertson will fascinate anyone interested in delving deeper.

4. Why eggs and why color them? The egg has always been a symbol of fertility, creation and rebirth. Many ancient cultures’ creation myths involved the earth being hatched from an egg. Though other societies may not have had such a creation myth, they still held the egg as a symbol of new life. Not such a stretch, really, when you consider that every living thing began as an egg. The ancient Persians and Egyptians exchanged colored eggs, usually red, in honor of spring. The Greeks and Romans adopted the custom, enlarging the color palette. In Medieval Europe, eggs were forbidden during Lent. This made eggs very popular at Easter. The Eastern Europeans have a history of creating beautifully colored and decorated eggs, entailing intricate designs with deep meanings. The Russians took this – and indeed, the entire celebration of Easter – to the extreme. Faberge eggs were first created as elaborate Easter gifts for the Russian royal family to give to friends.

5. Eggs were dyed with natural dyes once upon a time. Before we had those little colored tablets to color our Easter eggs, they were dyed with plants and herbs. Red Onion skins yield a soft violet color, carrots produce yellow eggs and cherry juice gives us red eggs. If you’d like to try natural dying methods, this site has a good list and instructions. The Russian word for the art of egg-coloring is Pysanka.

6. Ham for Easter dinner. While some people think that Christians eat ham as a form of insult towards Jews (kind of obnoxious, really), the origin of eating ham at Easter goes back much further than Christianity. Pagan cultures, having slaughtered their meat animals in the Fall, preserving them for the Winter months, now ate up the last of those preserved meats. The custom of lamb for Easter dinner comes from the Jewish Passover holiday. On that day, a sacrificial lamb was eaten, along with other symbolic foods, at the Passover Seder. The Christians adopted the lamb as a symbol of Jesus and retained the custom.

7. Hot Cross buns come from the wheat cakes that were baked in honor of Eostre. As part of the adoption of traditions, Christians added the cross on the top and had the cakes blessed by the Church. In England, it was believed that hanging a hot cross bun in the house would protect it from fire and bring good luck for the coming year.

8. What’s up with the Easter Bunny? The rabbit was a symbol of the moon to the Egyptians, that heavenly body being used to determine the date of the holiday may have had an influence. But the hare was a totemic animal of the goddess Eostre, symbolizing fertility for Spring. As anyone who has ever had rabbits or hares can attest, they are quite fitting for that symbolism. The character of an Easter Bunny seems to have begun in Germany, where he was a kind of Springtime Santa Claus, delivering Easter treats to children. He was known as Osterhase. The children would build a nest for him to leave their eggs in. This eventually became our modern Easter basket.

9. Easter eggs once acted as birth certificates. It’s true! During the 19th century, when families were unable to get to the closest town hall to file a birth certificate, an egg would be accepted as a method of identification. The egg would be dyed and inscribed with the person’s name and birth date. It was completely legal and accepted by courts and other authorities. Wouldn’t this just drive the birthers crazy?!

10. A few Easter customs… In England, doors and windows are opened on Easter Sunday so that the sun can drive out any evil within. If it rains on Easter morning, so the lore says, it will rain on the next seven Sundays. If you find a double-yolked egg on Easter, it is a sign of good luck. If you get up early on Easter and go for a swim in a cold stream (would there be any other kind at the end of March?) your rheumatism pain will be eased. I’ll stick with ibuprofen, thanks. Finally, if you get up early enough you can see the sun dance for joy.

So, there are some interesting facts about Easter. Yes, the holiday has its roots in pagan traditions, but that shouldn’t make any difference. If you are celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus, I’m sure that He wouldn’t mind if you hide a few Easter eggs for the kids. If you are celebrating Passover, it, too is a spiritual rebirth and observance of renewal. If you celebrate Ostara (as I do) then you welcome the warmth and new life of Spring. It doesn’t matter, you see, because it’s all in honor of renewal and rebirth and the continuation of life. Happy Easter!