Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Along with the religious significance, the holiday celebrates the return of Spring after the long, cold winter.
The date of the Easter holiday was established by the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. The holiday has since that time been officially observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon that follows the vernal equinox of March 21.
Eastern Orthodox Christians refused to accept the rules set forth by the Council of Nicaea, and they require the observance of Easter to follow the Jewish Passover.
According to tradition, Easter, like many other Christian holidays, was taken over by the Catholic Church in order to harness the power of pagan holidays under the name of Christian ones. Saturnalia became Christmas, and in this case, the adoration of Eostre (variously, Ostara), a Germanic goddess of spring, was the pagan holiday that the early Catholic Church leaders chose to become their celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The actual existence of a goddess named Eostre in the Germanic pantheon is questionable, but Neopagans have supplied certain "facts" of which history is deficient. The ancient Germanic peoples held a festival to honor Eostre during the time of the vernal equinox. It has been claimed that Eostre's primary animal companion was the hare, a symbol of fertility and fecundity from time immemorial. Another companion of Eostre was the lamb; nearly every virgin goddess had the lamb as a companion. The sacred status of the lamb was picked up by the early Christian church leaders, to become a virtual symbol of Jesus, the Christ. Eostre was also associated with the egg, a symbol of renewal and birth. The two things, hares and eggs, became intertwined to become the Easter Bunny that brought gifts of Easter Eggs for the children.
According to one legend, Eostre rescued a bird whose wings had frozen during a particularly harsh winter by turning it into a hare. The transformed animal, having previously been a bird, continued to lay eggs. This provided the holiday with an explanation of why the Easter Bunny brought eggs to good children.
One legend tells the tale that at one time, the hare wished to gain the favor of his mistress, the goddess Eostre. In order to do so, the hare obtained some eggs, decorated them with bright colors, fashioned a rough nest of grasses in which to lay the eggs and then presented them to Eostre. She was so pleased with the gift that she wished that all of humankind should share in her joy. The hare took it upon himself to go throughout the world delivering decorated eggs to all the good children.
There is not much of fact that is known about Eostre and her festival on the vernal equinox. What little we do know comes from a single source: the Temporum Ratione, written by the Venerable Bede, a monk from Northumbria who lived from 673 to 735. A translation was published in 1999 under the title of The Reckoning Of Time by Faith Wallis. On page 54 of that translation, it is stated:
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated "Paschal month", and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
Pagan traditions claimed that Eostre would bless couples who had sexual relations on the eve of her holiday. The evening meal that was eaten on Easter Eve was based on food items associated with fertility: eggs, honey, cake and the like.
One of the most popular customs that has characterized Easter, for many centuries, has been the decorating of eggs. During the heyday of the Roman and Grecian Empires, eggs were dyed only in the color red.
Although modern practice has devolved to the simple coloring of the eggshell by dipping a hardboiled egg into a bowl of a single colored dye, in ages past (and still in some regions), eggs were elaborately decorated with many colors and a wax-resist method. Known by the name of Pysanky, the method involves drawing, with melted wax, on the surface of the egg everything that is desired to be white. Then the egg is dipped in yellow dye and dried. Everything that is desired to be yellow is then drawn over with the melted wax. Then the egg is dipped in orange dye and dried. Everything that is desired to be orange is then drawn over with the melted wax. This process continues, with the egg dipped in successively darker colors and through all of the colors of the rainbow. When the egg has been dipped in the last color, and after it is dried, the wax covering its surface is carefully melted off, and all of the colors in the design are revealed. Pysanky is associated primarily with the Ukrainian region of Eastern Europe.
Unfortunately, pysanky is a dying art, and even the dyeing of eggs with single colors is something that most parents do not want their children to do because of the mess it may entail. Most parents find it is easier and simpler to go to a store and buy a bag of brightly colored plastic eggs.
In the United States, a custom became popular in the late 1870s and continues to the present day: Easter egg hunting. Although it never caught on in other countries, it is one of the most popular customs in the US. Adults hide colored Easter eggs outside under bushes, behind tufts of grass and so forth so that it is not too difficult to find them. Then children, carrying baskets into which the eggs can be placed if found, are set loose to hunt for as many eggs as they can find.
As noted above, one of Eostre's companions, the hare was transformed into the Easter Bunny. It was first mentioned in writings in the 16th Century. The Easter Bunny was a snow white hare, and according to most accounts, he was as tall as a grown man. Through the years he answered to the names of Peter Rabbit or Peter Cottontail. The tradition of the Easter Bunny was brought to America by German immigrants in the 1800s as the Oschter Haws. Similar to St. Nicholas at Christmas, the Easter Bunny would come during the night to homes where children lived, leaving candy and colored eggs in "nests" that the children at first prepared out of grass and later out of their hats and bonnets.
The people of Mexico and southwestern United States have a custom involving the Easter Egg. Eggs called cascarones are hollowed out by creating a single, small hole in one end. Then colored paper confetti and sweet smelling herbs, such as lavender, are poured into the hollowed out eggshell. The hole is covered over, and the egg is decorated in bright colors. On Easter morning, the children take one of the cascarones, break it over the head of a loved one or sweetheart, and as the confetti and herbs shower down over them, they believe that they have been blessed with good luck and love.
During the 1880s the Easter Lily was introduced into the United States as the 'premier' Easter flower. The fragrant flower that came to represent the holiday was imported from the island of Bermuda by the wife of Thomas P. Sargent, of Philadelphia. The white trumpet lily was new to grace church alters and holiday dining table centerpieces, but the symbolism of the lily went back many ages. Since ancient times, the white lily was an allegorical symbol for chastity and purity, and was associated with the virgin Mary. Young men would present a white lily to his loved one to symbolize his unending love for her in much the same way that a diamond ring is presented today.
Other flowers, such as the hyacinth and daffodil, were popular Easter decorations prior to the introduction of the Easter Lily. The Gentleman's Magazine of July, 1783 noted: ...the flowers with which many churches are ornamented on Easter Day, are most probably intended as emblems of the Resurrection, having just risen again from the earth, in which, during the severity of winter, they seem to have been buried.
German mothers prepared for the holiday by baking cookies, and making chocolate and/or marzipan candies in the shape of the Easter Bunny.
The traditional meal for Easter is roast lamb. The lamb has been the food of choice for Easter because it represents innocence. A soup, called Seven Herbs Soup, accompanies the lamb. It is comprised of herbs including spinach, parsley, chives and sorrel.
An alternative traditional meal is baked ham with roasted potatoes and asparagus.
Before leaving the subject of Easter, one of the more curious traditions practiced by our Colonial ancestors should be mentioned. The Monday or, variously, Tuesday after the Easter Sunday holiday was sometimes referred to as Heaving Day. The February, 1784 issue of the Gentleman's Magazine noted that: Lifting was originally designed to represent our Saviour's Resurrection. The men lift the women on Easter Monday, and the women the men on Tuesday. One or more take hold of each leg, and one or more of each arm near the body, and lift the person up, in a horizontal position, three times. The 13 April 1787 issue of the Public Advertiser gave this account of the custom: On the first day, a party of men go with a chair into every house to which they can get admission, force every female to be seated in their vehicle, and lift them up three times, with loud huzzas.