Origins of Easter Customs. A Natural Blend of Pagan and Christian Beliefs

10 04 2020

Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Easter at this time of year? Or better yet, why we give one another Easter eggs? Or, where the Easter bunny comes from? Where does the word ‘Easter’ come from?! The traditions and symbols of Easter that we engage in today are in fact a grand amalgamation of various traditions from all over the world – these tangled strings, pagan and Christian, have combined to give us our modern-day celebration.  Here, I will answer the most common questions relating to origins of our Easter customs, tracing the often-overlapping story across Europe and beyond.Although

Easter has become known as a Christian holiday around the world, celebrating the sacred death and rebirth of Jesus, the true pagan Easter and its symbols is a clear testament to the historical melting pot of cultures and traditions that make Easter what is is today.

Stonehenge origins

Easter Bunny at Stonehenge. The rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility.

Eostra
Starting in the UK, the word ‘Easter’ has Saxon origins – stemming from ‘Eostra’, the saxon goddess of spring. We have this connection on good authority, the writings of the Venerable Bede (672-735 AD), an influential chronicler and monk. He elucidated later Anglo-Saxon Christians on the etymology and his influence was thus that the name stuck and developed into ‘Easter’ as we have it today.

The connection with goddess ‘Eostra’ from Saxon tradition is deeper than mere nomenclature. A pagan celebration of the goddess took place at the vernal equinox, around the 20th of March. Not only is this day extremely close to when we celebrate Easter today, but it also has symbolic significance. The celebration of Eostra was a celebration of Spring, of fertility, new life. Crucially it was a time when light conquered dark and the world was reborn. These celebrations had a deep thematic connection with the story of Jesus Christ’s rebirth. The celebration of Eostra was the obvious celebration to be replaced by that of Christ.

Rebirth
Pagan celebrations of rebirth and fertility in the spring time were commonplace all across Europe. Many ancient cultures had stories relating to rebirth. In ancient Greek culture, Persephone, daughter of the goddess of fertility Ceres, was kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld. A distraught Ceres was too miserable to tend to the world and all crops and plants withered.

Unbeknownst to Persephone, imbibing the food of the underworld was a life sentence in that realm, and Hades laid on a feast.  When she is found in the underworld, it is discovered that she has eaten six pomegranate seeds and Zeus decrees she must henceforth stay in the underworld for six out of the twelve months of the year.  Therefore, when her daughter is free Ceres tends to the world like a garden, bringing bounty and prosperity. But, when her daughter is taken she lets the crops wither and die.

This story of fertility is common across the pagan beliefs in Europe, a cyclical story of descent into darkness and lights eventual triumph.  It is one of a number of accounts of dying and rising gods that represent the cycle of the seasons and the stars. For example, the resurrection of ‘Horus’, in Egypt or the Sumerian goddess ‘Inanna’ and the Mesopotamian ‘Ishtar’. This gave the Christian story of resurrection a natural home in the springtime.

The Rabbit and the Egg
The symbols of Easter have similarly tangled origins. The egg is an extremely common symbol of spring all across the world, representing fertility, renewal and rebirth. Similar to us, ancient Persians painted eggs at this time of the year and the Egyptians believed the eggs symbolised the sun and its rebirth in the spring time.

The rabbit was a common symbol of the goddess Eostra, who was also an important deity for the Saxons of mainland Europe. Thus, we find the first mention of the ‘Easter bunny’ in German writing dating from around 1572. Although the bunny was perhaps born in Europe, it is believed that the modern tradition of an Easter bunny, was largely formulated and developed by German immigrants in the united states – as opposed to puritan settlers who didn’t believe in Easter celebrations.

All of these symbols of Easter are a result of a natural blend of pagan and Christian beliefs and demonstrate the power the natural world has over our celebratory calendar.

RELEVANT LINKS:

The pagan roots of Easter – THE GUARDIAN
The Ancient Pagan Origins of Easter – ANCIENT ORIGINS
Pagan Easter: Where Did the Modern Tradition Really Originate? HISTORIC MYSTERIES
Origin of Easter: From pagan festivals and Christianity to bunnies and chocolate eggs – ABC NEWS

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