"-Easter; the day Jesus rose from the dead. What should we do?
-How 'bout eggs?
-...what does that have to do with Easter?
-All right, we'll hide 'em.
-I don't follow your logic...
-Don't worry; there's a bunny."
Easter is one of Christianity's most important holidays, a celebration of the holy day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead after his crucifixion. It is celebrated in many different ways depending on which denomination you belong to. For me, Easter was always a day of feasting and reading the story of Christ's resurrection, and getting to run around outside in the soft green grass instead of going to Sunday School. For others, it may have included more baptisms or the Eucharist or a vigil in honor of the light that Christ brought to the world when he rose again.
But why does it happen on a different day every year according to the cycles of the sun (it can be celebrated any day between March 25th and April 25th)? And where do the rabbits and eggs come from? To most folks, the secular version of Easter makes no sense with regards to its religious mirror. So let's take a look.
In his book De Ratione Temporum, the Christian scholar Bede the Venerable (672-735 AD) made the first written connection between the Christian holy day Easter and the pagan Eostre. Eostre was the fertility goddess of the Saxons in Northern Europe, but she went by many names in many cultures. After all, Spring comes to everyone, except for the Martians. Heck, maybe they have their own version of it. Eostre was also known as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron, and Ausos. And all of these derive from the ancient word for "spring"-- "eastre". Fancy that.
The pagan festival of Eostre was celebrated on or just after the Spring Equinox. [The equinox, as we all know, occurs twice a year - once in the spring and once in the fall - when the tilt of the Earth's axis is just right so that the center of the sun matches up on the same plane with the Earth's equator. The word equinox means "equal night", referring to the fact that on this day twice a year the night and day are almost equally long.] Note: the ancient Mayans also celebrated the Spring equinox, going to far as to built the massive pyramid at Chichen Itza to watch the shadow of Kukulkan descend from the sky - perhaps to bite the earth and shock it into springtime?
But back to the pagans. The celebration of Eostre was mostly about the fertility of crops and balancing out the hours of day and night; but there was a human aspect to the celebration as well. You may have heard stories about people jumping over the dying embers of a bonfire to induce fertility for young couples? This would have been when that would have happened. So where do the images of rabbits and eggs come from? Wanna take a teensy guess? I'll give you a hint - eggs are chicken babies and rabbits can start breeding at 4 months old with litter sizes between 4 and 10. *eyebrow waggle*
Now, here's another interesting little factoid. Around 200 BC, a couple centuries before Jesus' recorded birth, there are reports of a cult appearing around Rome called the "Cybele". According to Gerald Berry's "Religions of the World", this cult worshiped the Phrygian fertility goddess Cybele, whose lover Attis (potentially a version or combination of Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus) was the symbol of ever-reviving vegetation. He also, apparently, was born of a virgin and died and was reborn every year. The celebration of Attis occurred on the spring equinox. In fact, apparently early Christians and Cybele cultists celebrated their holy days on the same days and argued "bitterly" with each other over which of their gods was the real one and which was the impersonator.
Now. We know what the eggs and rabbits represent, but when did the rabbit grow to human size and start painting the eggs?
The "Easter Bunny" apparently arrived in America in the 1700s thanks to some German immigrants who brought a tradition of "Osterhase". [Thank you, History.com.] The Osterhase was apparently a hare that laid colored eggs in the spring and traditionally, the children would build a nest for it. Like unto the Christmas tradition, children would sometimes even leave out carrots for the Easter Bunny in case he got peckish on his egg-laying rounds. These eggs eventually became shells filled with candies and chocolates, so apparently the Osterhase and the Cadbury bunny are cousins.
More about eggs: The Egyptians and the Hindus believed that the world began with an enormous egg. [Which came first? The chicken or the egg? Obviously, the egg. The chickens had to evolve on the earth that came out of the egg. Did that joke fall flat?] So the use of the egg as a symbol of new life has been around since... well... for a really long time. Centuries ago, cultures were using dyes made of vegetables, edible flowers, coffee, tea, bark, leaves, and roots to tint their festival eggs different colors. In Macedonia, they would dye the egg, cover the egg in a wax design, and then bleach it leaving only the areas of the egg covered in wax colored. In the Ukraine, the eggs were dyed a simple, bright red to symbolize the blood of Christ. Also in the Ukraine, there is the ancient art of pysanky, which is an amazingly detailed designing and coloring of eggs.
Now when you think of decorated eggs, I think everyone's first thought is Faberge. These were invented by Peter Carl Faberge, a Russian jeweler, in the 1800s. These were made of gold, silver, diamonds, and rich jewels and held tiny little figures inside of them. 57 were made, but there are replicas in the same vein for sale at ridiculous prices all over.
Interesting little historical note: according to the household accounts, Edward I of England (1239-1307) bought 450 eggs and had them gold leafed and colored in honor of Easter. We of the 20th and 21st century non-royals tend to just dunk our hard boiled eggs in food coloring. Oh, how times change. :)
If you want to watch a fun little clip about Easter and eggs, click here.
[Note: None of the above pictures are mine. I Google searched them under images labeled for reuse. All the history, I have looked up either online or in books, so if anything is incorrect, it is the fault of my research and not my ignorance. Don't sue, I can't afford it.]