BY ROSEMARY FETTER
Easter combines both Christian and pagan traditions, celebrating both the arrival of spring and the Resurrection of Jesus, according to Christian theologies. Beliefs and traditions have merged over the centuries to create a pastel festival of religious celebration, family gatherings, blossoming flowers, delicious foods, hard-boiled eggs and enough sugar to keep a child bouncing like a bunny until Mother’s Day.
Origin of the word ‘Easter’
The secular version of the Easter celebration dates back to the ancient Saxon feast of Eastre (or Eostre), a tribute to the Teutonic goddess of spring and rebirth. Celts celebrated Beltane Eve on April 30, followed by a festival, dancing around the Maypole and feasting on May 1. In spring, Christians observe the Resurrection of Christ, which, according to the gospels, took place around the time of the Jewish Passover. Since Beltane also took place in spring, it was relatively simple for the Church fathers to substitute one holiday for another. Over the centuries, Eastre became Easter.
Confusion over the date of Easter arose among early Christians from different backgrounds. Those brought up in the Jewish tradition regarded Easter as an extension of the Passover Festival, so the holiday fell on a different day of the week from year to year. Non-Jewish Christians, on the other hand, wanted Easter celebrated on a Sunday. To settle the matter, the Roman Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. According to the Easter Rule, the holiday should be observed on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal (spring) equinox. If the full moon rose during Passover, Easter would be celebrated the following Sunday. Thus, Easter always falls between March 22 and April 25. Since 1582, the date has been calculated by the Gregorian calendar, which was never accepted by the Eastern churches, which stuck with the Julian calendar. This year, the Eastern churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox) will observe Easter on April 15.
Colored Easter eggs
The egg has been a symbol of rebirth for the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians and many other early civilizations. In Medieval Europe, eggs were used for decoration on New Year trees, on Maypoles and on St. John’s trees in midsummer. The affluent would exchange eggs covered with gilt or gold leaf, while peasants colored their eggs by boiling them with flowers, leaves or even insects. The gorse blossom was best for yellow, spinach leaves for green, logwood for purple, and the fluid of the cochineal produced red.
Fabergé Easter eggs
The world’s most valuable Easter eggs were produced by the Russian goldsmith, Peter Carl Fabergé between the 1870s and 1917. Working with a team of nearly 500 designers, goldsmiths, jewelers and carvers, he created some of Europe’s greatest treasures, many of which became part of the Forbes collection.
The Easter Bunny
The pagan goddess Eastre took the hare as her mascot, since prolific bunnies understandably symbolized fertility. In one interesting legend, the goddess, obviously having a whimsical, Paris Hilton-type moment, transformed a robin into a snow hare who could lay colored eggs. The confused creature then proceeded to distribute eggs from a nest – ergo, the Easter bunny. (We have since replaced the nest with that plastic grass that gets stuck on everything.)
The Pennsylvania Dutch (i.e. Germans) brought the Oschter Haus, or Easter Bunny, to America. Since Germans are the country’s largest ethnic group, many of their traditions and foods have become incorporated into our culture, like the Christmas tree, Oktoberfest, strudel and sauerkraut.
Because Easter follows Lent, a time of fasting and abstinence, eggs were once a forbidden food until Easter. Traditionally, eggs and other foods would be brought to church in a basket to be blessed on Holy Saturday, and then taken home to be eaten as part of the Easter breakfast.
Although in many areas, the Easter food of choice is lamb, referencing the Passover lamb and Christ, the lamb of God, Americans seem to prefer ham. The pig was considered a symbol of luck in pre-Christian Europe. After a long winter, peasants would consume the last of the smoked meats from the previous autumn at Easter.
Hot cross buns
The Saxons baked the twice-scored biscuits to honor Eastre, and even the Romans enjoyed the food. In ancient Greece, a similar sacred bread was called “bous” meaning ox, from which the word “bun” probably originated. Early church fathers created a Christian version, re-interpreting the ox-horned image as a crucifix. The English custom of eating spiced buns on Good Friday arose during Tudor times, when a London law forbade their sale except on Good Friday, at Christmas and at funerals. The English believed that hanging a hot cross bun in the house on these days offered protection in the coming year.
The Easter parade was first held in New York in 1870s. Originally, churchgoers would carry Easter flowers from St. Thomas Church to St. Luke’s Church. The social lions and lionesses would attend services and parade down Fifth Avenue to give onlookers – and each other – a chance to show off their new Easter outfits. The 1948 movie, Easter Parade, with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, takes place in the early 1900s.
Interestingly, Easter was not celebrated by the entire nation until after the Civil War. Women who wore the dark colors of mourning for years staged a small rebellion and began wearing colorful flowered hats and elaborate corsages at Easter. Their hats were adorned with blooming and fresh flowers and sometimes paper, ribbon, feathers or seashells.
Popular spring flowers include the tulip and the daffodil, but the beautiful, trumpet-shaped white flowers of the lily have long symbolized purity, innocence, hope and new life – the essence of the holiday. In turn-of-the century Denver, society lioness Louise Hill took the Easter lily as her personal symbol.
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