Bunnies are hopping, children are hunting for brightly decorated eggs, and women are parading in outrageous bonnets. It’s Easter time, heralding the (unofficial but more realistic) arrival of spring. Most of us are so caught up in today’s commercialization of this delightful holiday that we rarely stop to reflect on how the Easter traditions came into being.
The starting point is an astronomical event that occurs two times each year around March 21 and September 23 – the Equinox. Earth tilts on its axis as it orbits the Sun, making the days longer or shorter during half the year if you live north or south of the equator. During an Equinox, the Sun lines up with Earth’s equator, making day and night of equal length, twelve hours.
The Spring, or Vernal, Equinox determines the time of Easter, and there’s a little formula involved. It begins with the first Full Moon after the March Equinox and concludes on the first Sunday after that Full Moon. The date of Easter is set as the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox.
After a long, dark winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox was a highly anticipated event celebrated by ancient cultures around the world. It appears that our contemporary cultural observance of Easter has its roots in those pagan celebrations of this particular Equinox. For them, it meant the beginning of spring and the rebirth of life.
The theme of fertility echoes through nature as flowers bloom, animals mate, and seeds sprout. The pagans honored Eostre or Eastre, the Anglo Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. They celebrated her feast day at the first Full Moon that followed the Spring Equinox.
Many Christian holidays coincide with pagan holidays, and it’s obvious that Easter is the celebration that corresponds with the honoring of the fertility goddess. Her name was surely the inspiration for the name of today’s holiday, too.
And what about those rabbits and eggs, two symbols associated with Easter? They are indisputable symbols of fertility and easily connected with Eostre. Legend has it that the goddess found a wounded bird lying on the ground in late winter. She saved its life by turning it into a rabbit, but the change was incomplete. Although the bird had the appearance of a rabbit, it was still able to lay eggs! As for our decorated eggs, those have an ancient tradition, too. During the festivities for Eostre, pagans dyed eggs with bright spring colors.
Another feature borrowed from ancient times was the wearing of new clothes at the festival of the fertility goddess. People thought it brought good luck because it was in harmony with the essence of the spring season – a time of rebirth and spiritual renewal. This custom, which stems from the old belief, is still observed today. In our society, it’s traditional and trendy to don a stylish new outfit on Easter Sunday.
It’s easy to see how many of the ancient customs have been incorporated into our contemporary Easter observances and how other traditions have developed. There are football games, promenades of Easter bonnets, parties, and dinners with ham and other foods associated with the holiday. We exchange decorative cards and baskets full of chocolate eggs, candies, and small gifts. And to think it all started with the tilting of Earth’s axis!