How Did Easter Become an Important Celebration
Easter is the most important event in the Christian calendar, as it reflects the resurrection (and thus salvation offered) by Christ for all those who accept him. While this is true to many Christians today, the story of Easter is complex and it is a period of celebration that is very ancient, having origins from pre-Christian periods. As with many other holidays, the early Catholic church often combined pre-Christian traditions and Christian ideals to make it easier for conversion and facilitate the rise of Christianity.
Origins of Easter
While there is no universal agreement, the term Easter may derive from the goddess Eostre, who is the goddess of spring and often associated with fertility in Germanic and Norse traditions. Traditionally, the spring equinox, when darkness and day are the same amount of time, was seen as a holy period that signified the coming time of plenty and the agricultural cycle. It is possible the goddess may connect to the ancient Near East, where the goddess Ishtar also had associations with fertility and was celebrated at about the same time as her significant holiday. Eostre was also associated with rabbits and hares, which seem to be retained as symbols for Easter, where in the pre-Christian tradition rabbits and hares symbolized new life, as these creatures reappeared after winter. Similarly, Christianity used these symbols of life in relation to the life that Jesus gave his followers. Using eggs as symbols of life and fertility is not only an ancient pre-Christian tradition, likely retained in the holiday celebrations today, but perhaps even hiding eggs for children to find may have already been done by pre-Christian societies in parts of Europe.
Both in Near Eastern and ancient European traditions, the spring equinox was a time of religious festivals that focused on sexuality and fertility. The ancient Babylonians had a "sacred marriage" ceremony where the king would ritualistically have sex with a female representative of the goddess Ishtar. These rituals were seen as critical in continuing life as they allowed its rejuvenation after winter. Eostre seems to be associated with many Indo-European goddesses and as Indo-Europeans migrated from India and through Anatolia, it is possible the traditions of Eostre mixed or were influenced by or along with traditions of Ishtar.
Interestingly, for other European cultures, the term for Easter derives from Passover. In essence, it was the Northern European Germanic traditions that may have retained their older holiday names, while southern European or Latin and Greek influenced cultures utilized a new name after their conversions. It is also likely that the southern European cultures, which converted earlier than in Northern Europe, had more time to assimilate their older traditions with Christianity.
The importance of the spring equinox could not be understated, given the importance of agriculture. For the early Christian church, the time of the Passover was seen as the most important period in the Christian calendar. The importance of Passover, falling near the time of the pagan spring celebrations, may have influenced the Church to decide in 325 AD, in the Council of Nicaea, to have Easter fall on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. In effect, this puts it near but not exactly at the same time as the pagan rituals, although in some cultures celebrations would have occurred at or during Easter. Furthermore, the Church made this celebration a moveable holiday and not fixed. This gives it a range between March 25-April 25 each year, depending on the particular year. It was also the Council of Nicaea that regularized Lent, the 40 day fasting period before Easter, as a way to help people reflect on the sacrifices of Jesus. This could also be seen as a way to more Christianize the period leading up to Easter and slowly change the meaning of the spring equinox celebrations to those focused on the resurrection of Jesus.
As the church developed the holiday and Christianity spread in the early Medieval period in Europe, particularly in Northern Europe, past pagan traditions of using eggs and rabbits as symbols of fertility and celebration of new life, the Christian church began to reuse these symbols to reflect on Jesus as the life giver. In essence, this retained many of the symbols while reorienting the meaning. Initially, it is likely the ancient celebration and feasting during the spring equinox may have been retained during 4th and 5th century CE. The fire used in Mass, for instance, may have connections to worshiping of the sun but in Christian traditions the meaning and importance of the sun was transformed as symbols for the importance of Christ giving light and salvation. But as the Church's influence spread the holiday began to develop its own new symbols and traditions. Traditions such as staining of eggs appear to be initially done by Christians in Mesopotamia or Iran, with that tradition later being adopted by the Western Church (Figure 2). Church writings from around 1610 indicates the importance of eggs as symbols of Christ's resurrection, although this tradition likely starts much earlier in late Antiquity in the 4th or 5th centuries CE. The coloring of eggs seems to have been done only in red initially, as it was to symbolize the blood of Christ.
With the emergence of Protestantism in the 16th century, Christian traditions, such as Lent, fasting, and celebration of Easter, began to change again. Liturgical decrees during the Easter period were dropped and various traditions developed. The key change was many Protestant denominations dropped Lent. This had more to do with separating themselves from the Catholic church than a rejection of the traditions themselves. However, Anglican traditions did retain Lent and Eastern Orthodox and Eastern churches in general have retained a form of Lent. One thing that remained consistent is the timing of when to celebrate Easter, even though the specific day celebrated was often not likely the day Christ would have resurrected. The eating of hot cross buns on Easter may have emerged in Britain during the time of Elizabeth the First, who banned buns shaped with crosses except during the time of Easter. This was a way to force people away from Catholic traditions. The bun, itself, was another likely pre-Christian food often eaten during the feasts associated with the spring equinox.
In Russian Orthodox traditions, decorating and coloring eggs were also popular and were influenced by Christianity coming from the Middle East. However, Russian traditions elaborated on this practice. The Medieval and early modern traditions began to decorate eggs more elaborately. This tradition derived from creating jewellery in the form of eggs to celebrate Easter, with the precious items being symbolic of the importance of the resurrection symbolized through the egg shape. Artificial eggs of silver and gold, ivory or porcelain, and usually containing various jewels were created by craftsmen. Carl Fabergé in the 19th Century decided to decorate eggs and present them to the Russian Czar and Czarina as an Easter present. This has led to these eggs being famous museum pieces today.
The use of candy or having candies in celebrating Easter likely connects to the festivals held in Easter. For Catholics, after fasting, the Easter celebration was often conducted with indulgence in food, drink and sweet foods. Before arriving in the New World, chocolate was not used. However, by the early 19th century chocolate used in the form of eggs began to appear in France and Germany. The Cadbury company in Britain also began creating chocolate eggs by 1875. These 19th century chocolates were usually made from dark chocolate and added with dragees. German, French and other European traditions may have influenced the idea to decorate chocolate eggs as well, where the Cadbury company also developed this practice in Britain and making it a distinctly Victorian style of celebration that later spread and is still with us. It was not until 1916, however, when the Bortz chocolate factory, in Pennsylvania, came up with the idea of the chocolate bunny. They even filled their bunnies with chocolate filling or cream, with that tradition having continued to be popular.
Other traditions also relate to the egg roll. While the egg has pre-Christian traditions, the egg roll has become an important Christian symbol of the tomb of Jesus being opened. The egg roll was first celebrated by a sitting president in the White House grounds in 1872, celebrated by Ulysses Grant.
The symbols of Easter have often been influenced by pre-Christian traditions, such as eggs, rabbits, and even the name itself (Easter). There was also important overlap that made this holiday perhaps relatively easy to adapt to for early Christians. Specifically, there were many ancient traditional feasts associated with the spring and equinox. As Christians traded their old traditions for new ones, they often adapted old symbols to new meaning. For instance, Christ reflecting life as a everlasting life through Christ rather than earthly life's renewal. Similar to Christmas, Easter has retained key symbols that reflect its likely pre-Christian origin but those symbols and usage over time have shifted.
- For more on the origins of Easter and Eostre, see: Stetcu, Nicolae. 2014. Easter Celebration. CreateSpace.
- For more on the symbols of fertility and sex in relation to the spring equinox, see: Armstrong, K. (1998) A History of God: the 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York, Ballantine.
- For more on the Germanic traditions in celebrating spring, see: MacLeod, S.P. (2014) The divine feminine in ancient Europe: goddesses, sacred women, and the origins of western culture. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, pg. 173.
- For more on how the early Church decreed the Eastern celebrations, see: Stewart, C. (2008) The Catholic Church: a brief popular history. Winona, MN, Saint Mary’s Press, pg. 73.
- For more on transition to early Christian symbols in Easter and coloring of eggs, see: Aveni, A.F. (2004) The book of the year: a brief history of our seasonal holidays. Oxford, Oxford University Press.