Ancient Celebrations Led to Easter Traditions
By Will Johnson
GRAPELAND – Next Sunday (April 17) marks the celebration of Easter. Easter (with Christmas a close second) is the most sacred celebration in the Christian religion. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, after he died on the cross for the sins of humanity, is the very rock upon which Christianity is built.
Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of Christ which took place in the spring time. This paralleled many ancient “renewal of spring” celebrations.
As Christianity began to spread, the spiritual focus of these ancient seasonal rites shifted from the deities of the past to Christ and the message of Christianity. While many secular aspects of the pagan celebration remained intact, a question remains – how did a rabbit get involved?
While it is now highly commercialized, the Easter Bunny is not a modern invention. The origins of the Easter Bunny can be traced back to the pagan festival of Eastre.
The goddess Eastre was worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons. Ancient folklore indicated she was said to have entertained children by turning birds into hares. The hares would then lay colored eggs much to the delight of the children. The story goes on to say even after they were changed, the hares were still birds at heart and continued to lay eggs and build nests.
Before Christianity, Eastre was seen as the goddess of dawn, spring and fertility. She represented renewal and rebirth. Eggs and hares were sacred to her.
Rabbits/hares were (and still are) viewed as some of the most fertile animals known to man. They served as symbols of the new life during the spring season.
It should be noted there is a difference between the hare and the rabbit. Hares are generally larger, have longer hind legs and possess longer ears than rabbits. When hares are born, they have a full coat of fur and their eyes are open. Rabbits, on the other hand, are more compact. Their young are born hairless and blind.
Rabbits and hares both molt and then grow new hair. This happens in both the spring and in the fall. A rabbit’s brown summer fur is replaced with fur that is greyer. Hares, especially those living in cold, snowy regions, turn white in the winter. But, because there are more rabbits than hares, the Eastre hare soon morphed into the Easter rabbit.
When the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, the festival of Eastre was combined with the Christian memorial of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and given the name Easter. Some of the pagan practices – carried over in this combination of the two celebrations – included the rabbit and the egg.
It is believed that the symbol of the Easter Bunny was first brought to America by German immigrants in the early 18th century. First mentioned in German writings in the 1500s, legend has it a peasant woman hid some colored eggs in a nest for her children to find. As the children approached the nest, a rabbit hopped away and the children believed that the rabbit had brought the eggs.
In the twentieth century the image and name underwent a further change from a rabbit to a lovable little bunny. Over the years, the celebration and traditions of Easter have changed but the resurrection of Jesus Christ is and remains the reason that Easter is celebrated.
And – to quote Paul Harvey – “Now you know…. the rest of the story!” Happy Easter!!
Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.