Easter is the most important date in the liturgical calendar for Christians of most denominations – the time that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected a few days later. Yet many historians and Bible scholars disagree over the exact dates of his death. The festival we know as “Easter” has many Christian and non-Christian symbols and concepts behind them. Here’s what we know about the three biggest.
The Date of Easter
Easter Sunday can fall any time between 22nd March and 25th April. If it represents the pivotal date of the death and resurrection of the spiritual head of all Christian groups, why does it move at all? The reason pre-dates Christianity. A far more ancient rite of determining the beginning of spring is influential in calculating the date of Easter Sunday today – it is the first Sunday after the paschal moon (first full moon that occurs after the Spring Equinox). Depending on whether we have a leap year or not, the Spring Equinox occurs between 20th and 22nd March, but normally on the 21st. Therefore, Easter cannot fall before the 22nd March. As the moon cycle is 27-29 days, Easter Sunday also cannot fall much later than the end of April.
The Easter Egg
The Easter Egg, today a symbol of the commercialisation of Easter, actually goes back further than we might initially think. Today, it is a symbol of spring fertility and the metaphor is obvious – new life, birth and rebirth. It is not a huge leap of logic to see how the egg has become associated with spring and there are examples of painted eggs from graves going back 60,000 years.
Documentary evidence suggests that followers of the Zoroastrian religion painted eggs specifically in celebration of the festival of “Nowruz”. This important festival was the Spring Equinox and perceived as the birth of the New Year. In ancient cultures, particularly in the ancient Middle East, spring was the beginning of the year and not, as today, the days following the Winter Solstice.
Neo-pagans also stake a claim to their modern festival of “Ostara” being born from an ancient rite of the worship of the goddess “Eostre”. Though this goddess was venerated in ancient Northern and Western Europe, we have yet to find evidence of painted eggs being part of the ritual of her worship. The idea came from the 8th Century writer Bede who referred to painted eggs as part of pagan spring’s fertility rites. He lived at a time in which Christianity was supplanting ancient Germanic beliefs in the British Isles, but one where pagan beliefs were still widely understood.
In 1873, Frye’s of Bristol launches the world’s first chocolate Easter Egg. It was not their invention though; like many traditions imported during the Victorian era, it came from Britain’s new love affair with German culture, one of many things adopted following the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
The Easter Bunny
The writer Pliny spoke of Roman beliefs that rabbits and hares reproduced asexually. Today we know they are mammals, just like humans, but a four-week gestation period coupled with the lack of physical signs of pregnancy in female rabbits led to this mistaken belief; the belief and association has stuck with us today even if we have largely forgotten why. Rabbits cannot and do not experience virgin births but the ancient belief that they did also came to associate the animal with spring and later, specifically with Christianity.
How did the rabbit, the scourge of the landowner and pest of the southern hemisphere, come to be a Christian symbol alongside the fish and the cross? It was all thanks to the reformer Martin Luther. Following his reformation in Germany, Protestants adopted the Easter Bunny, of all things, as a proverbial carrot and stick – a festive figure that rewarded good behaviour and punished misbehaviour in children. The reason for this is that Protestantism had a great focus on deeds as a path to heaven than the Catholic Church from which it broke away. Later, Germany would adopt Santa Claus and Krampus to fulfil similar roles at Christmas.