As Easter approaches, religious and non-religious American families prepare to celebrate. In a way, it’s about his mixed background.
A minister once told me that Easter is the holiest of all Christian holidays – the day Christians celebrate the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven, and a story almost every American is already very familiar with. Like other major Christian holidays, religious service and a large family meal are part of this tradition.
But how did we go from such a serious and holy focus to laying rabbits?
Much like Christmas, Easter traditions merge into the derivation of much older ones across Eurasia. Take these colored eggs, for example: Ukrainian tales about the origins of egg painting, called “pysanky” to celebrate the rebirth of spring, are mirrored in other ancient cultures such as the elaborate designs of Persia. Both celebrate the new life and renewal of the season.
According to most sources, the name “Easter” comes from Eostre, a Germanic and Norse goddess named for dawn, or a Celtic fertility goddess of the same name, sometimes called Ostara. Again we see the community of traditions crossing international borders and centuries. (Eostre and Ostara also gave us the English word estrogen.)
This focus on fertility also led to the Easter Bunny. Rabbits were revered in some ancient cultures for their obvious fertility, but that’s not the only reason.
A version of a Celtic legend describes Eostre transforming into a giant rabbit on the night of a full moon (note that modern Easter is always timed with the phase of the moon). More often than not, the story goes that Eostre transformed a bird into a rabbit that retained the power to lay eggs — rainbow-colored, in fact.
Similar is the later story of German immigrants who brought their shiny egg hare Osterhase (looks like Ostara?) to America around the 1700s.
Now that sounds more familiar.
With all this emphasis on fertility, you probably guessed that the Eostre festival was in the spring. Easter traditions explained, right?
It seems some scholars are beginning to doubt that any of this is true. Evidence of what really happened so many centuries ago in largely unrecorded history is too sparse to prove one way or another.
Yes, there was definitely a goddess Eostre worshiped by certain Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures. There was a festival for her, but the main clue to the timing is in the name Eostermonath, “the moment of opening” or something like that, which we assumed connoted the buds of spring.
We’re really not sure. Archaeological evidence of the cult of Eostre in the normally expected carvings and the like is so far absent.
Most likely over the centuries, much like that old “telephone” game where each person tells a short story resulting in a completely different version by the time they reach the last person in line, the traditional origins of Easter have become a jumble real and imaginary things. and assumed.
Its good. Whatever we do and why we do it, tradition is like man: an evolution of intent and symbolism to help us commemorate what is important to us.
With that, whether you’re egg hunting, feasting, or just feeling gratitude for his gifts, Happy Easter.
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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email [email protected]