Rites of Spring: Easter & Eostre

We all have pagan roots. While “pagan” has come to mean a person who is not a Christian, Moslem, or Jew, its root is the Latin pagus, which is simply “rustic, peasant, of the country.” Many of our current secular and religious practices have come to us through these pagan roots.

Easter

Easter, the high holy day of the Christian tradition, is inextricably linked to pre-Christian practices. This moving holy day is perhaps the only one whose date is set according to ancient lunar and solar calendars. The First Council of Nicea in 325 CE set the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.

The name “Easter” has been said to originate with the goddess Eostre (also called Ostara and several other names). In his book De Ratione Temporum, the Christian Scholar Bede (672-735 CE), described Eostre as the goddess of spring, fertility and rebirth of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Her name is derived from the words for “east” and “shining.” Jacob Grimm wrote in the 1800s that he found evidence of her festival in German oral traditions. Little else is known about Eostre.

Whether or not Eostre existed, country peoples celebrated the thawing of the ground and the rebirth of life. Springtime celebrations of the triumph of life over death closely coincided with the Christian commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus. Absorbing some of the renewal symbols of spring festivals into celebration of the Resurrection helped missionaries in their work of converting the tribes to Christianity. This synchronicity of festivals and celebrations can be seen throughout the year, such as at Samhain (Halloween)/All Saints Day, and Winter Solstice/Christmas.

The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are central tenets of Christianity, although celebrations of Easter differ among branches of the Christian church. Eastern Orthodox and Western branches celebrate it at different times. Within Western Christian denominations, some do not celebrate Easter at all, and some avoid the secular festivities described below.

Easter also is linked to the Jewish Passover feast by timing, history, and symbols. The Feast of Passover is one of the most important religious festivals in the Jewish calendar. It is observed in memory of deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, and of sparing their children from the plague on the firstborn. Brushing the blood of a sacrificial lamb on their door frames caused the avenging angel to “pass over” their homes. It was the Passover Seder meal that Jesus is believed to have shared with his disciples at the “last supper” in the final days before his crucifixion. A lamb shank and an egg are traditional elements on the Seder plate. [The Book of Exodus (Christian Bible) tells the story of the 10 Plagues and of Moses leading the people out of Egypt.]

Symbols and Traditions

Some aspects of modern Easter celebrations pre-date Christianity, including eggs, bunnies, and spring festivals.

Eggs. Eggs have long been viewed as symbols of new life and fertility. Many ancient cultures, including Egyptians, Persians and Romans, as well as Druids and Anglo-Saxons, used eggs during their spring festivals. These eggs often were painted in patterns. During the early Middle Ages, meat, dairy products and eggs were forbidden during Lent (the period of 40 days before Easter). Eggs laid during that time often were hard boiled or preserved, and became a prized Easter gift for children as well as being served at the Easter meal. Many games have developed using boiled eggs.

In old German oral traditions, the egg represents immortality. The World Egg is laid by the Goddess and opened by the heat of the Sun God. The hatching of the World Egg was celebrated each year at the Spring festival of the Sun.

In these traditions, Eostre was a playful goddess whose reign over the earth began in the spring when the Sun King journeyed across the sky in his chariot, bringing the end of winter. She came down to earth as a beautiful maiden with a basket of bright colorful eggs.

The Easter Bunny. Hares and rabbits have long been symbols of fertility. They seem to have found their way into Easter customs in Germany. A rabbit was the magical companion to the goddess Eostre. This magical rabbit helped as she brought new life to dying plants and flowers by hiding eggs in the fields.

When Germans emigrated to America, particularly the Pennsylvania area, they brought the tradition of the Easter Bunny with them. From there the tradition spread. The “Pennsylvania Deutsch” immigrants baked special Easter cakes in the shape of a rabbit, and may have made the first chocolate bunnies and eggs.

Celebrate Spring

Rising early to greet the sun on Easter Sunday, church services, spring festivals, Easter egg hunts, bowers of spring flowers, and lots of chocolate are hallmarks of this day and season. At its roots, the celebration is about renewal and resurrection of life in its many forms. Birds sing and build nests, spotted fawns are born, trees and plants send forth fresh shoots and some child, somewhere, will ask, “How come the Easter Bunny lays eggs when other bunnies don’t?”
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Sources:
http://www.angelfire.com/ca6/sunnysweb/ostar.html
Wigington, Patti. “Eostre – Teutonic Goddess or NeoPagan Fancy?” www.About.com.
http://www.religioustolerance.org/easter1.htm
http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/holydays/passover_1.shtml
http://www.neveh.org/pesach/pesblm1.html
Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia.
Johnson, David and Shmuel Ross. “Easter Symbols and Traditions – A brief history of the spring holiday’s celebrations.” http://www.infoplease.com/spsot/easterintro1.html#ixzzlGdgCi8T3

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