In order to introduce this month’s topic of religious history and as Holy Week draws to a close, I have written about Easter and it’s traditions through history. In case you don’t celebrate it or have forgotten, at the end of this week or in a few weeks’ time, many people around the world will be celebrating both the most significant event in the Christian story as well as a long-lived Pagan event of new birth.
Originally, Easter and certainly the time of year in which it is celebrated, was a Pagan festival which honoured a Goddess relating to nature and new birth, hence the association of lambs, eggs and bunnies. This Goddess was known as Eastre, ‘the Teutonic goddess of spring and dawn.’
Although, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity, it is believed, so as to ease in the transition of their Empire from Paganism to Christianity, the Romans adopted many existing Pagan dates and celebrations into the Christian calendar of festivals. As well as Easter being celebrated at the time of the Pagan Spring Equinox, Christmas also almost shares its dating with the Winter Solstice.
Indeed, although there are a fair few, not many of the Christian aspects of Easter specifically derive from the story of Jesus and the accounts of the Bible. As well as this, many of the non-religious aspects evolved much later, such as the Easter Bunny and chocolate eggs.
It can be implied, from history, that the decision to have the Christian celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection was made partly because it coincides with the Jewish Passover festival and because Easter in the Pagan traditions is a time of new-life. Examples of this include the symbol of the egg and everything that comes with Spring-time such as the birth of baby lambs and other animals. Those who do not share or fully grasp the Christian faith may wonder how the notion of new-life relates to the Christian adoption of the originally Pagan festival of Easter. Well, as Christians believe Jesus was crucified to free us from our sins and that he rose again and consequently defeated death, Christians also believe that as humans we can share in Jesus’ resurrection and eternal life, if we choose to believe in Him and acknowledge that He paid the price for our sins. This is also seen as an opportunity for our souls to live forever in Christ’s salvation. Yet, arguably, despite Easter in England becoming very much a Christian orientated celebration; there still remain clear Pagan traditions, such as the Easter egg, representing new life.
The main Christian aspects of Easter revolve around the week leading up to Easter Sunday, the usual day on which Christians traditionally come to God in worship and thanksgiving, as well as Lent and the famous Shrove Tuesday. Although Shrove Tuesday, it seems, is just as much related to socio-historical customs as it is to Christian’s traditions. According to history, it was tradition to raid the store cupboard and use up all the indulgent supplies such as flour, sugar and eggs, usually used to bake cakes. These would be mixed together to make a feast of pancakes, in recognition of the final day of indulgence before the time of often fasting or giving something up, known in the Christian Calendar as Lent. Ash Wednesday signifies the beginning of Lent and is 46 days before Easter and ‘derives its name from the practise of placing ashes on the forehands of adherents as a sign of mourning and repentance to God.’
With regards to the week before Easter, known in the Church of England as Holy Week, Christians remember Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem and was allegedly welcomed by people waving palm leaves, after having Spent 40 Days, in the desert, resisting temptation from the Devil. Maundy Thursday in memory of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, when he broke bread and shared wine for the last time. This was also the night on which Jesus was betrayed by Judas, in the Garden of Gethsemane. As well as Good Friday, also known as Black Friday and a few other names, when Jesus sacrificed himself on the Cross through His great love for humanity.
Easter Sunday itself is believed to be the oldest observed Christian festival, as it commemorates the day on which Christ fulfilled the penultimate prophecy by dying on the Cross and rising again, as well as the time when the Church community was first established, according to John 19, verses 25-27.
The name Easter in England also has a history of its own, as it is not the original Christian name, instead it was used for the Christian celebration, when the faith was brought to England, so that the transition would be a lot easier for English Pagans, in that the name Easter was associated with the Pagan Spring festival of new life.
The idea of an Easter bunny and the edible egg derives from the original Pagan symbols of new life, which were originally a hare and an ordinary egg, both representing new life. Regarding, the significance of the egg, it is believed that the empty or inanimate shell is supposed to represent death, which Christians believe all humans were subjected to before Jesus’ crucifixion and the actual edible part symbolises the new life we receive through Christ’s sacrifice. It has also been claimed that ‘some believe that the egg might represent the stone that was rolled away from Christ’s tomb, revealing his resurrection.’ It is also the case that, despite their disagreements over the specific date on which Easter is celebrated, both Eastern Orthodox Christians and Western European Christians adopted the traditionally Pagan symbols of the hare and the egg. Although, it is not completely clear why the eggs we have in the UK are chocolate, when in some European countries ordinary eggs are still used, being decorated with lots of colour and patterns and given to people as gifts. Another popular tradition in England is the Easter egg hunt, which is believed to derive from America, when German immigrants brought their egg and hare traditions, which over a number of years spread to other countries. This originally featured children making nests and leaving ‘them outside for the hare to lay her eggs in them’, although this has now evolved into children finding chocolate eggs hidden for them.