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The Origins of Easter PDF Print E-mail

Easter celebrations in Christian countries are explicitly related to Christ's sacrifice. However, many traditions associated with Easter have their origins outside Christianity that have to do with rejoicing for the return of spring (in the Northern hemisphere).
The date of Easter is not fixed; it falls on the first Sunday following the full moon either on or after the Spring Equinox (March 21 in ecclesiastical calendars). However, in Orthodox Christianity, the date of Easter is determined by the date of Passover - the Last Supper shared by Jesus and his disciples before the Crucifixion is thought to have been a seder (the ritual meal eaten at Passover).

Passover which marks the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is called Pesach in Hebrew. In parts of Europe the name for the Christian festival held at this time derives from Pesach; the French word for Easter is PĂ ques, the Spanish word Pascua and the Dutch word Pasen.

Eostre and the Egg

Pagan traditions give us the English name Easter, which is derived from the word Eostre (note the similarity to the word Oestrus which denotes the fertility cycles in female mammalian animals). The Anglo-Saxon's word for March was Estor-monath (the month of openings). Accoring to an account by the Venerable Bede, Estor-monath was named in honour of the Saxon goddess of the dawn, Eostre. Nothing definite is known about this goddesss, but rituals related to her (and to Easter by association) focus on new begginings, symbolised by the Easter egg, and fertility which is symbolised by the hare (or Easter bunny).

The egg's oval shape represents the eternal cycle of the seasons. In the modern Pagan celebration of Ostara, the egg represents the cosmic egg of creation and rebirth. In ancient agricultural societies, eggs provided a vital source of nutrition. By mid-March, food stores from the previous year would have been running low. The first eggs of the year, laid by domesticated fowl or foraged from the nests of wild birds, added much-needed nutrient's to people's diet.The custom of hunting for Easter eggs derives from the need to forage for wild birds eggs' at this time of the year.

Mad March Hares

The Spring equinox is also the time when the seeds are sown for the Autumn harvest, and nature's fertlity is therefore both prayed for and celebrated. The march Hare was a widely recognized fertility symbol in medievil Europe. The majority of northern European species of hare are nocturnal for most of the year, but from the 1st of March they are in season and need to mate, thus appearing during the day. In addition female hares can conceive a second litter of offspring whilst still pregnant with the first. Unreceptive females "box" persistent males to discourage them from their repeated amorous advances, causing the males to become frustrated and behave erratically. This behaviour led to tyhe English phrases "mad as a March hare" and "Hare brained".

The modern legend of the Estaer bunny originated in Germany; it is mentioned in the 16th-century writings. German settlers took the traditions with them to 17th Century America, where children would leave out nests made of grass, as well as their Easter bonnets and caps, to be filled with treats by the Easter bunny - but could expect success only if they'd been good.