Rabbits, chocolate and hot cross buns: what do these things have to do with the death of Jesus? Here are the origins of Easter.
Why is it called ‘Easter’?
The origin of the name ‘Easter’ is disputed.
Before Christianity, European pagans marked the spring equinox with feasting and celebrations. This was a time of renewal; the end of winter bringing warmer weather, newborn animals, and the planting of crops for the year ahead.
These spring celebrations, are where Easter finds it root.
According to the Venerable Bede, an 8th century English monk who is considered one of the first historians, part of the festivities were dedicated to the German deity ‘Eostre’, goddess of the dawn and fertility. Eostre was honoured with bonfires and by dressing young girls in white, as a tribute to the goddess’s believed purity.
But some modern scholars refute this. Evidence for Eostre is scanty, it is possible Bede invented the entire story.
As an alternative, it has been suggested that the Latin term ‘in albis’, meaning dawn, is the origin of the word Easter. Dawn was also an important part of the arrival of spring: the earlier sunrise, and longer daylight hours, were a tangible sign of the end of winter.
‘In albis’ was translated into old German as ‘eostarum’.
Whichever explanation you prefer, esotarum/eostre attached itself to the spring festivities, which occurred in April. The Anglo-Saxons eventually called the celebration ‘Eástre’ (other Germans used the term ‘Ostern’). They brought the tradition, and the term, with them when they relocated to Britain.
Where does the Easter Bunny come from?
The origins of the Easter Bunny can also be found in pagan mythology. For the northern Europeans that celebrated Eástre, or Ostern, wild hares and rabbits were deeply connected with spring.
Both were common in Europe, their appearance in numbers were another sign of the changing seasons. And their ability to breed led to them being associated with fertility, which was also linked to spring.
Over time, rabbits slowly replaced hares as the the more common spring symbol, although both would still be used in different communities (along with other animals, including foxes).
Easter rabbits are also linked to the origin of Easter eggs. In some German folk tales, the rabbit was originally a bird, magically transformed by the gods:
‘In Germany and among the Pennsylvania Germans, toy rabbits or hares made of canton flannel stuffed with cotton are given as gifts on Easter morning. The children are told that this Osh’ter has laid the Easter eggs.
This curious idea is thus explained: The hare was originally a bird, and was changed into a quadruped by the goddess Ostara; in gratitude, the hare exercises its original bird function to lay eggs for the goddess on her festal day.’
– American Notes and Queries, 1889
It was these German immigrants that brought the Easter rabbit, to America.
Similar to the evolution of Santa Claus, the modern ‘Easter Bunny’, replete with cute name, human clothes and a basket full of colourful eggs, would largely be the invention of modern corporations and advertising (more on Easter eggs, below).
In Australia, as rabbits are an introduced pest, the Easter Bilby was created as an alternative.
Why does the date of Easter change each year?
After the death of Christ, Christianity gained steadily in popularity throughout Europe. A key moment arrived in 380 CE, when the Roman Emperor Constantine legalised the religion, and converted.
As Christianity grew, so the focus on its traditions and rituals grew as well. The most significant were those marking Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection.
The Bible stated that Jesus’ resurrection occurred on the third day after the Jewish holiday of Passover. This then set the date for his death as well.
But this also led to a complication: Passover does not occur on the same date each year.
The Hebrew calendar is known as ‘lunisolar’, meaning it orients itself to the phases of the moon. Passover also occurs in spring: it is held on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, which begins on the night of the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
In the Julian calendar used in most western countries, this means that Passover is a different date each year: falling somewhere in March or April. And as Passover moves, so does Easter.
The shifting date caused a breach in the early years of Christianity.
Some believers felt that the celebration of the Resurrection should be moved to the relevant date after Passover, regardless of which day of the week this fell on. Others, the majority, felt that the celebration should always fall on a Sunday, the beginning of the Christian week.
Both approaches were adopted by different Christian sects.
In 325 CE a holy council, the Council of Nicea, decided to settle the dispute. They decreed that Easter would be observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.
So while the date still shifts each year, Easter is marked by most Christians at the same time, somewhere between March 22 and April 25. The proximity of this date to the established ‘Ostern/Eastre’ festivities, led to the name being co-opted by the Christian holiday.
Members of the Orthodox Church, who follow the Gregorian calendar, still celebrate Easter at a different time.
If Jesus died, why is it called ‘Good Friday’?
The simplest explanation is: in old English, the word ‘good’ had a different meaning to today. It meant ‘holy’, rather than the opposite of bad.
In some traditional Christian cultures, the term ‘Holy Friday’ is still used, instead of Good Friday.
Although it should be noted, the term ‘Good Friday’ has different meanings to different people; some Christians link it to the Resurrection, or Jesus dying for people’s sins, both of which have a positive spiritual meaning.
What about Easter eggs?
As mentioned earlier, eggs were associated with the pagan celebration of spring.
They are another symbol of fertility and rebirth, and such a powerful one that the ancient Germans had their Gods transform a hare, into a bird, so it could lay eggs for their holiday. The original Easter eggs were actual eggs, hard boiled.
Games would be played with the eggs, as part of the festivities. These were usually aimed at children: eggs would be hidden around the garden, and the kids sent out to find them.
Christians embraced this aspect, when they absorbed Easter, but added their own element to it. They started decorating the eggs: initially they coloured them red, using vegetable dye, to simulate the blood of Christ.
As the Christian celebration of Easter spread around the world, the tradition of decorating the eggs evolved. Different colours were popular in different countries, some people experimented with sophisticated patterns. Highly decorated eggs were often given as gifts.
For the wealthy, eggs were manufactured out of porcelain or even precious metals. The Russian Royal family famously had a jewel encrusted set of eggs, made by Carl Faberge, as a family keepsake.
Easter confectionary had started in the early 19th century, with rabbit and egg shaped lollies. Lent precedes Easter, sweets are a common thing for Christians to give up for Lent. Having Easter themed lollies to eat was like a reward, and they became very popular.
Chocolate followed as the century wore on; the first chocolate eggs appeared in France in the second half of the century, Cadbury’s began mass producing chocolate eggs in England in 1875.
These chocolate eggs were usually solid, and came wrapped in plain paper. Hollow eggs were initially made by hand, with the chocolate painstakingly brushed onto the inside of the moulds.
They later came wrapped in foil, to make them look more appealing.
And Hot Cross Buns?
A traditional hot cross bun is a yeasted sweet bun, lightly spiced and dotted with raisins or currants. It is marked on top with a cross either etched into the dough, or added with icing.
Alongside chocolate eggs, they are the most notable Easter-specific food item.
Hot cross buns are an English invention.
Legend has it that they were first baked in the 12 century, by a pious monk who wanted something to celebrate Good Friday. While this story is often given as fact, it is short on specifics: who was this monk? And where did he live?
According to the Smithsonian, the first historical reference to hot cross buns actually comes much later: they are mentioned in an English satirical magazine called ‘Poor Robin’, published in the 16th century.
By this time, they were a popular part of the English Easter celebrations, and other legends grew up around them.
It was said that if you shared a hot cross bun with someone, it would cement your friendship for the next year. People also thought that they were holy items, that they would never go off, that leaving them in your kitchen would ward off evil spirits.
The tradition of eating them only at Easter is also English.
In 1592, Queen Elizabeth I decreed that hot cross buns, due to their sacred association with the death and resurrection of Christ, could only be sold at Easter time.
People could, and did, still prepare their own buns at home throughout the year, but if they were caught, their buns and cooking equipment would be confiscated.