Commentary: The mysteries of Easter

The origins, traditions of Sunday’s holiday

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Anita W. Harris

Here in Southern California, we are fortunate to be experiencing a green, super-blooming spring after the rare rains this past winter.

Spring has been traditionally celebrated as a time of regrowth and renewal, at least in the northern hemisphere, as the earth starts tilting toward the sun in its annual orbit.

For example, the Persian new year– called Nowruz– starts at the spring equinox in March, after which the days start getting longer than night. In India, a colorful festival called Holi marks the advent of spring. Its date is based on the lunar calendar, though it’s usually in March.

Passover in the Jewish tradition– which begins today according to the lunar calendar, continuing for seven days– marks spring as a time of new growth of grain and livestock, as well as freedom from slavery.

All of these traditions involve specific ritual foods and joyful communion with friends and family.

In the Christian tradition here in the U.S., Easter is the equivalent celebration, the date on which Jesus is said to have come back to life three days after dying by being nailed to a cross.
The date of Easter changes because it’s also based on the lunar calendar. This is because it stems from Passover, during which Jesus– who was born Jewish– died nearly 2,000 years ago. This year, Easter falls on Sunday, which is the first Sunday following the first full moon (today) after the spring equinox (March 20).

Children especially are looking forward to hunting colorful eggs and candy hidden by the Easter Bunny. But wait– this is where things get mysterious– what do eggs and rabbits have to do with Jesus?

Photo by Kevin Jump | flickr.com
Rabbit

As symbols of new life, eggs are obvious. Spring is also when new chicks are born from eggs (hence all those yellow Peeps).

But the tradition of giving eggs may have started in medieval Europe. According to a 2017 Time magazine article that cites UCLA history professor Henry Kelly, the strict fasting rules of Lent – the 40-day period of time leading up to Easter– barred people from eating any animal products. So Christians would boil and store the eggs their hens laid during that time to give to the poor or as gifts.

Coloring eggs probably started in England after the late 13th century, when King Edward I asked for 450 eggs to be colored or covered with gold leaf before being given away, according to a book on British ritual history by Ronald Hutton.

Decorating eggs with intricate patterns is also very popular in Eastern Europe. Carl Fabergé made his first jewel-encrusted egg for the Russian czars in 1885.

Faberge.com
Fabergé egg

That tradition came to the U.S. with British and European immigrants and, in 1878, the White House held its first Easter Egg Roll for children. First Lady Melania Trump will host the 141st annual egg roll on the South Lawn this coming Monday.

As to rabbits, they too are a natural symbol for new life, given their proclivity to procreate. But it’s also possible that the connection between Easter and bunnies arrived with German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 1700s– who associated spring with an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase.”

An eighth-century English Monk, the Venerable Bede, even proposed that the English word “Easter” may have derived from a Germanic pagan fertility goddess named “Eostre,” for whom rabbits were a symbol. An earlier name for this goddess may have been Ostara, who presided over Ostern, a Germanic spring festival.

It’s also possible that Eostre is connected with the Greek goddess of dawn, Eos, and possibly even other goddesses associated with new life and renewal in the Indo-European world.
Such mysteries connected to meaningful rituals run deep in human history.

But there is another meaning to the word “mystery” that is more spiritual and transformative. Figuratively, Easter can mark a time of our own rebirth as we emerge out of our winter shells. It can be an opportunity to consciously renew ourselves and– like all these California poppies– bloom in a super way.