History of Easter
Bunnies, eggs, Easter gifts and fluffy, yellow chicks in gardening hats all stem from pagan roots. They were incorporated into the celebration of Easter separately from the Christian tradition of honoring the day Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
According to University of Florida’s Center for Children’s Literature and Culture, the origin of the celebration — and the Easter bunny — can be traced back to 13th century, pre-Christian Germany, when people worshiped several gods and goddesses. The Teutonic deity Eostra was the goddess of spring and fertility, and feasts were held in her honor on the Vernal Equinox. Her symbol was the rabbit because of the animal’s high reproduction rate.
Spring also symbolized new life and rebirth; eggs were an ancient symbol of fertility. According to History.com, Easter eggs represent Jesus’ resurrection. However, this association came much later when Roman Catholicism became the dominant religion in Germany in the 15th century and merged with already ingrained pagan beliefs.
The first Easter bunny legend was documented in the 1500s. By 1680, the first story about a rabbit laying eggs and hiding them in a garden was published. These legends were brought to the United States in the 1700s when German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country, according to the Center for Children’s Literature and Culture.
The tradition of making nests for the rabbit to lay its eggs in soon followed. Eventually, nests became decorated baskets and colorful eggs were swapped for candy, treats and other small gifts.
So while you’re scarfing down chocolate bunnies (hey, I hear chocolate is good for you!) and marshmallow chicks this Easter Sunday, think fondly of this holiday’s origins and maybe even impress your friends at your local Easter egg hunt.
Ancient Spring Goddess
According to the Venerable Bede, Easter derives its name from Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. A month corresponding to April had been named “Eostremonat,” or Eostre’s month, leading to “Easter” becoming applied to the Christian holiday that usually took place within it. Prior to that, the holiday had been called Pasch (Passover), which remains its name in most non-English languages.
(Based on the similarity of their names, some connect Eostre with Ishtar, the Babylonian and Assyrian goddess of love and fertility, but there is no solid evidence for this.)
It seems probable that around the second century A.D., Christian missionaries seeking to convert the tribes of northern Europe noticed that the Christian holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus roughly coincided with the Teutonic springtime celebrations, which emphasized the triumph of life over death. Christian Easter gradually absorbed the traditional symbols.
The Goddess Ostara
The Saxon goddess of the dawn, Ostara, arrived each year to bring spring to the earth. It was her divine responsibility.
One year she overslept. Arriving late, she found a poor little bird shivering with the cold and about to die. Feeling a little guilty about his predicament (OK, so maybe she felt a lot guilty), she turned him into a snow hare since so he’d be able to survive next year’s snow.
As he scampered around, leaping gleefully in the snow, Ostara couldn’t help but fall in love with the little guy.
To Ostara, the Germanic Goddess of Dawn who was responsible for bringing spring each year, was feeling horribly guilty about arriving so late one year. To make matters even worse, the first thing she saw when she arrived was a pitiful little bird who lay dying, his wings frozen by the snow.
Lovingly, Ostara cradled the shivering creature and saved his life.
Legend has it that she then made him her pet or, in the adult-rated versions, her passionate lover. Filled with compassion for him since he could no longer fly because of his wings had been so damaged by the frost, the goddess Ostara turned him into a rabbit, a snow hare. She named him Lepus.
She also gave him the wonderful gift of being able to run with such astonishing speed that he could easily evade all the hunters. And to honor his earlier incarnation as a bird, she also gave him the ability to lay eggs (in all the colors of the rainbow, no less). He was, however, only allowed to lay eggs on one day out of each year.
But all good things must come to an end.
Eventually Ostara lost her temper with Lepus (some say the raunchy rabbit was involved with another woman), and she flung him into the skies where he would remain for eternity as the constellation Lepus (The Hare), forever positioned under the feet of the constellation Orion (the Hunter).
But later, remembering all the good times they had enjoyed together, the goddess Ostara softened a bit and allowed the hare to return to earth once each year, but only to give away his eggs to the children attending the Ostara festivals that were held each spring.
The folklore story was by Goddess Path
In Medieval Europe, eggs were forbidden during Lent. Eggs laid during that time were often boiled or otherwise preserved. Eggs were thus a mainstay of Easter meals, and a prized Easter gift for children and servants.
In addition, eggs have been viewed as symbols of new life and fertility through the ages. It is believed that for this reason many ancient cultures, including the Ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Romans, used eggs during their spring festivals.
Many traditions and practices have formed around Easter eggs. The coloring of eggs is a established art, and eggs are often dyed, painted, and otherwise decorated. Eggs were also used in various holiday games: parents would hide eggs for children to find, and children would roll eggs down hills. These practices live on in Easter egg hunts and egg rolls. The most famous egg roll takes place on the White House lawn every year.
Orthodox Christians in the Middle East and in Greece painted eggs bright red to symbolize the blood of Christ. Hollow eggs (created by piercing the shell with a needle and blowing out the contents) were decorated with pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other religious figures in Armenia.
Germans gave green eggs as gifts on Holy Thursday, and hung hollow eggs on trees. Austrians placed tiny plants around the egg and then boiled them. When the plants were removed, white patterns were created.
The most elaborate Easter egg traditions appear to have emerged in Eastern Europe. In Poland and Ukraine, eggs were often painted silver and gold. Pysanky (to design or write) eggs were created by carefully applying wax in patterns to an egg. The egg was then dyed, wax would be reapplied in spots to preserve that color, and the egg was boiled again in other shades. The result was a multi-color striped or patterned egg.
The Easter Bunny
Hares and rabbits have long been symbols of fertility. The inclusion of the hare into Easter customs appears to have originated in Germany, where tales were told of an “Easter hare” who laid eggs for children to find. German immigrants to America — particularly Pennsylvania — brought the tradition with them and spread it to a wider public. They also baked cakes for Easter in the shape of hares, and may have pioneered the practice of making chocolate bunnies and eggs.
Easter cards arrived in Victorian England, when a stationer added a greeting to a drawing of a rabbit. According to American Greetings, Easter is now the fourth most popular holiday for sending cards, behind Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day.
After their baptisms, early Christians wore white robes all through Easter week to indicate their new lives. Those had already been baptized wore new clothes instead to symbolize their sharing a new life with Christ.
In Medieval Europe, church goers would take a walk after Easter Mass, led by a crucifix or the Easter candle. Today these walks endure as Easter Parades. People show off their spring finery, including lovely bonnets decorated for spring.
In Christianity, a moveable feast or movable feast is a holy day – a feast day or a fast day – whose date is not fixed to a particular day of the calendar year but moves in response to the date of Easter, the date of which varies according to a complex formula. Easter is itself a “moveable feast.
The above resources and information are from different individuals that I researched several years ago and I do not remember who they are.