Easter is the oldest and most important event in the Christian Church, celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Easter is held (based on the Western Church) between March 21st and April 25th, on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern Spring Equinox.
Easter is a special time of year: the celebrations people share, the gifts, the unique flowers associated with this special time, the Easter Bunny, the wonderful gift baskets, the eggs and even hot cross buns.
To understand Easter’s special qualities it helps to appreciate the origins of this event. Originally a Pagan festival celebrating the return of Spring, this second century Saxon fertility celebration was a raucous affair to say the least. The Goddess Ostara (Eastre) was honored in a variety of colourful and imaginative ways and Ostara’s sacred animal was the hare.
The colored eggs associated with the bunny have even more ancient origins and eggs are a symbol of fertility, rebirth and life. The precise timeline of this symbology is not known, however evidence shows the Romans and Greeks used eggs as special symbols and eggs also portrayed solar symbols and figured in the festivals of numerous resurrected gods.
Skip forward a millennium-and-a-half and in Germany, children would await the arrival of Oschter Haws – a rabbit that laid coloured eggs in nests on Easter morning. This tradition made its way to North America when German settlers brought this tradition with them to Pennsylvania.
The fusion of Pagan and Christian celebrations was a clever idea conceived by the Church to help people of the time more readily accept the new teachings. Apparently the Church discovered people were more likely to accept the new teachings if you didn’t take away their holidays! So Christianity absorbed Pagan ideas into the celebrations.
Another interesting thing which happened at this time was the shift of when the celebrations occurred. Until the Christian influence, the celebration happened on the Spring Equinox. After amalgamation, the Church believed the date shift was required to more appropriately reflect the resurrection of Christ, so the event shifted to the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern Spring Equinox.
The origins of the baskets, the meals and the special Easter flowers is once more tied to Pagan symbology. Remembering that Easter – the time of rebirth and new life – people would celebrate this with a special dinner. Often times that dinner’s ingredients were taken to the Church during a special ceremony and blessed. This explains the baskets and the sumptuous Easter dinner we’ve now appreciate.
The same concept of rebirth and renewal was also applied to flowers. Farmers and local peasantry were superstitious by nature and believed you needed to make offerings to the Spring gods to ensure a bountiful harvest. Adorning the altar with flowers was one such offering and supplication of bounty.
In later years the white Lily – more affectionately known as the Easter Lily would become a symbol of this time. The lilies were apparently found growing in the garden of Gethsemane after Christ’s death. The lilies were said to have sprung up from where Christ hung during the last hours of his crucifixion and commemorate his ultimate sacrifice for mankind.