The Origin of Easter and the Easter Bunny - a Pagan Easter?
Is Easter a Pagan Celebration?
There seems to be a growing concern among many Christian groups in recent years that some, or all, of their religious ceremonies are rooted deep in Pagan beliefs and the question arises as to whether these celebrations and holidays should be observed.
All Saint's Day, for instance and it's attending All Hallow's Eve, are Christian observances. All Hallow's Eve, however, has been almost completely taken over by pagan and secular traditions - is the celebration of Easter the same? Is it, or has it become, a pagan ritual?
To find out, we need to understand the origins of Easter and of the traditions that go with the holiday.
The Origin of Easter
Easter is the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ, and by the second century most Christian communities and churches observed and participated in that celebration. Traditions were not yet uniform, nor was the date of observance and the holiday did not even have a formal name, but it was generally accepted and observed in one form or another.
Many Christians of the day were Hebrew converts and to them Easter was an expanded bit of passover, being held at the same time, and this was seen as a problem by Christian leaders. Easter was generally being held in accordance to the Hebrew lunar calendar and it was decided to properly set a day all it's own. At the first Council of Nicaea in 355 AD it was decided that all of Christianity needed to celebrate on the same date, that the date should not depend on the Jewish calendar, and that the celebration would take place on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox in the norther hemisphere.
There does not seem to have been any real effort by council members to determine the actual date of the resurrection, perhaps because that would put the holiday on different days of the week each year and it was already determined that it should always be on Sunday. Nor was there any movement to choose an existing pagan celebration to match dates with as was done later with Christmas and Halloween, although the rough connection to passover was allowed to stand.
It took time, but over the next few centuries the vast majority of Christians accepted the new date for Easter. There were (and still are) exceptions, but the biggest difference was that the Eastern communities clung to their Julian calendar rather than using the new Gregorian method, and that wasn't particularly important.
So the creation and origin of Easter came about naturally. There was no effort to combine it with pagan ceremonies, religious or otherwise, and although it bore a tenuous connection to the Jewish passover that connection was more hindrance than anything and the Christians tried to sever it, not build on it.
Where then did the idea of the Easter bunny and Easter eggs come from? It certainly wasn't a part of Christianity; there is no mention of an egg laying rabbit leaving multi-colored eggs for children in the bible. The best hint is the word "Easter" itself, which does come from paganistic beliefs and gives support to that odd, furry, egg laying creature children look for on Easter morning.
Oddities in the Date of Easter
There are a few curious twists to the date of Easter. Eastern Christianity uses the Julian Calendar while western churches are more comfortable with the more modern Gregorian method of dating. The result is a 13 day difference between the two; the equinox falls on March 21 (Julian) and April 3 (Gregorian).
Easter can thus fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25 (Julian) or April 4 and May 8 (Gregorian). It will remain this way until the year 2100, when the two will diverge by one more day.
In addition, the date of the equinox is an ecclesiastical determination rather than an astronomical one. The ecclesiastical declaration of the equinox is March 21, while the actual date is March 22 in most years (in leap years it would be March 21).
Origin of the Easter Bunny
Most of the pagan civilizations had a goddess of Spring and/or fertility, and most celebrated her return on the spring equinox, March 21. Some of the best known include:
- Persephone, from Greek mythology
- Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility from the Assyrians
- Ostara, from Teutonic races.
Of these, it is Ostara that interests us the most in connection with Easter. Also known as Eostre, the Anglo Saxons had their own celebration named after her on the spring equinox. One of the more interesting tales of Ostara is as follows:
Ostara was late in coming one spring and when she finally arrived she found one of her favorite birds shivering in the show with frozen wings. Ostara nursed it back to health, but was unable to fix her friends wings; she turned the bird into a snow hare instead, gave him the gift of great speed to outrun hunters and named him Lepus. To honor his earlier life as a bird, Ostara also gave him the ability to lay eggs in all the colors of the rainbow. Some of the X-rated versions include here that the hare was also Ostara's lover.
Much later, the hare angered Ostara greatly (perhaps by chasing other women?) and Ostara flung him into the heavens, where he became the constellation Lepus (The Hare) and would remain forever under the feet or Orion (The Hunter).
Eventually Ostara relented a bit and allowed Lepus to return the earth one day each year, but only to give eggs to the children celebrating her return each spring.
Eggs have long been a popular symbol of fertility and the stories of Ostara fit too well into the traditions associated with Easter not to have been a part of the evolution of the holiday. It took many centuries but eventually the pagan traditions of an egg laying rabbit took it's place within the celebration the Christians were pushing on the pagan holdouts in their continued efforts to convert the world to their view.
The first Easter bunny legend was documented in 1580 and by 1680 the first story about rabbits laying eggs and hiding them was published. German immigrants, settling in the Pennsylvania Dutch area of America in the 1700's, imported the legends with them and the rest is history - American children have squealed with glee for nearly 200 years as they search out the colored eggs laid by Lepus before he returns to the stars.
Easter is much like the Christian celebration of Christmas, then. It began as a strictly Christian festival celebrating Christian beliefs but over the centuries has evolved to contain some of the beliefs and/or traditions of other peoples as well. As it is impossible for any tradition to remain static for thousands of years, it is not surprising that Easter picked up some of the surrounding pagan traditions such as the Easter Bunny.
Ostara Wasn't Alone
Although the Easter Bunny almost certainly has his roots in the legends of Ostara, she wasn't alone in providing the tradition.
Spring is a time of renewal and fertility for all nature based religions, from wicca to a large number of pagan variations. Eggs play their part as well in most of these beliefs as a tremendous symbol of fertility.
The bottom line is that most of the pagans would have had a festival of some kind celebrating spring, fertility and renewal of the world around the same time that Easter was celebrated. It is quite natural that these beliefs and traditions, all so similar, would come to be a part of the Christian celebration of the resurrection (renewal).
Should Christians then forgo the celebration as it has picked up secular traditions? It is of course up to the individual, but every holiday or tradition changes through time in both meaning and modes of celebration. Every celebration means just what the celebrant wants it to mean, and it seems a little out of line to refuse to celebrate a very spiritual day simply because others have changed the meaning into something more in accordance to their own likes or dislikes. Give the day a meaning that you like and celebrate accordingly, just as everyone does for every celebration.
Knowing the pagan roots of some of Easter, will you celebrate the holiday?
© 2012 Dan Harmon