There are some incredible stories associated with our holidays here in North America. Santa clause spends Christmas Eve delivering Christmas presents to all the children of the world in his flying sleigh led by a team of determined flying reindeer, squeezing his fat butt through tiny chimney stocks everywhere he goes. Halloween is full of spooky ghosts and monsters coming out for one last night to haunt the Earth before the coming of Winter and then there’s Easter, perhaps one of the oddest fables involved with any of our holidays…
In celebrating the passage and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people for some reason unknown, tell tales of a mysterious rabbit that visits and lays chocolate eggs for kids to find on Easter morning. So where the heck did this tradition develop and what does it have to do with Christianity anyway? Well, from what I’ve learned, it’s a story that has evolved over time and across multiple religious backgrounds.
In ancient Pagan tradition, there was a celebration of Eostre or Ostara, the Goddess of Spring. This festival celebrated Spring and rebirth, the beginning of light returning to the world and the end of Winter’s darkness. Winter’s darkness was also represented by the day of the Souls at the end of October which may feel familiar to you.
Ostara, the Goddess of Spring, was often represented in Pagan traditions as a hare because of the hare’s symbol of fertility and to mark the season’s arrival. The egg also had become an ancient symbol that represented both fertility and renewal in their culture. Both had become associated with the rebirth of the world into days of light and warmth through a festival of Spring.
In ancient Germanic mythology, pagans told stories of a wounded bird that was found by the Goddess Ostara while she wandered through a stretch of forest. Ostara healed this bird by turning it partially into a hare, and although the bird had been transformed, it still held the ability to lay eggs for itself. So with great gratitude and appreciation for the goddess, the hare returned the favour by laying her many eggs as a gift.
So how did this tradition merge with Christian rituals and festivities?
Well, it all started in 595 A.D, when Pope Gregory decided to try to convert the Anglo-Saxons of England from their Pagan beliefs to Christianity. Augustine, who was to lead the mission of converting the Anglo-Saxons in England was advised that he was to allow old Heathen traditions and festivals to remain intact but to superimpose Christian beliefs and philosophy on top of those wherever it was possible. The Pagans were very resistant to changing their festivities and feasts but did not reject the Christianizing of their holidays if they remained virtually unchanged. In this way, Easter, which originally began as a celebration of Springtime by the Pagans, had come to adopt the celebration of the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ as well very subtly over time. All Souls Day or Halloween, which had originally represented the end of the year and the beginning of Darkness, also became Christianized by the following All Saint’s day.
The Pagan festivals and Christianity blended to form Easter as we know it today. Some say that eggs were collected and painted throughout the week of Lent when Christians were unable to eat them and that they were eventually feasted upon when lent had ended in celebration.
As for how the traditions became engrained in North American culture, it is believed that stories of this Easter bunny or “Osterhase” travelled to America with German immigrants and that their children created nests for the bunny to lay its colourful eggs on Easter day. Eventually, this custom spread across the country, nests were replaced with baskets and the custom eventually grew to include chocolates and other presents as gifts offered to children by the Easter bunny.
So the next time you’re hating yourself for eating one too many chocolate bunnies and you’re laying in a heap on the floor covered in chocolate wishing for death, just remember to curse the Pagans and their Heathen traditions! They did this to you!
Happy Easter everybody!
The Ancient Pagan Origins of Easter – Joanna Gillan
Easter Symbols and Traditions – History Channel