Quick – when’s Christmas next year? “December 25!” Alright, good job. You know your holidays. Okay next question: when’s Easter next year? “Uhhh… April something? Or maybe March… I don’t know…” We’ve been celebrating Easter for close to 2,000 years now. You’d think this would be an easier question to answer. Along with other mysteries. Why is it even called Easter? Why do we decorate eggs? Where did the Easter bunny come from?
Upon investigation of these questions, one quickly learns that there are two very different types of sources of explanation: those that claim that Easter traditions are purely Christian, and those that claims that they’re purely pagan in origin. The reality, I’ve found, is that it’s kind of a mix, but as are most holiday traditions, they have no definitive origin.
As far as the varying dates of Easter, that much has a concrete answer. The original celebrations for the resurrection of Jesus stem from biblical origins (unlike Christmas). The famous last supper was written to have taken place during Passover. As a result, for many years, early Christians consulted with the Jewish calendars in order to determine the proper date. (The Jewish celebration of Passover stems from Exodus, commemorating the Israelites leaving Egypt, and is celebrated on the 15th day of the Hebrew month Nisan. The Hebrew calendar stems from a lunar calendar, Nisan being the first month of the year. Ancient lunar calendars had to take into account the differences between them and actual days of the year, so the calendar year would always begin after the barley was ripe, indicating the onset of spring. As a lunar calendar, Nisan would always begin on a new moon. Consequently, the 15th day of Nisan would always be the day following the first full moon of spring.)
However, in 325 AD, Christians were all like throw the Jew down the well and decided to set the day according to the Julian calendar, and not have to consult the Hebrew calendar to decide. It was decided then that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox. And due to various interpretations of the calendar (Gregorian, Julian, Alexandrian), Easter is celebrated on two, and on rare occasions three, different Sundays a year.
As far as the term ‘Easter’ goes, its origins are Germanic. In other languages, the word for Easter stems from the Hebrew word for Passover (Pasach). In English, it stems from the Northumbrian month (the equivalent of April) Eostermonap. (There are accents and symbols in that term that I am too lazy to try to figure out how to write in html; Eostermonap is close enough.) According to Bede, an ancient scholar, some Germanic tribes used to worship the spring goddess Eostre during that time, and that’s how the month got its name.
History has shown that early Christians converted pagans to the faith by borrowing attributes from their various holidays and having them celebrate them as Christians. Some people believe that this is why we have Easter eggs, as nearly every pagan tribe of the time had some form of spring celebration, and the egg is commonly a symbol of new life. However, I find it much more likely that the Easter egg’s origins stem from Lent. Early Christians fasted during Lent, refusing to eat any meat or dairy. However, during this time, hens still continued to lay eggs. So in order to make sure they don’t go bad, by the end of Lent (Easter Sunday), eggs had to be consumed. Decorating them may stem from an Eastern Orthodox tradition of dying eggs red to represent the blood from the sacrifice Jesus made during this time.
The Easter bunny’s origins are incredibly vague. Many believe that Eostre’s animal totem was a hare, although there is little to no evidence to suggest this (Eostre’s only evidence of existence comes from Bede, and he makes no mention of it). The earliest evidence of an Easter Hare comes from 1682 from Georg Franck von Frankeneau. This may have stemmed from the three hares motif, which was prevalent in churches in the area at the time. Others suggest it stemmed from pagan rituals, where the ability for hares to breed quickly was a symbol of fertility, synonymous with spring, or “rebirth.” Regardless, the idea of an Easter bunny/hare/rabbit/whatever is strictly western.
So whether you’re celebrating Easter by going to church, spending time with family, or just eating a ham sandwich alone at home, remember that what you’re doing probably has nothing to do with celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.