It’s lot of enlightening fun to dig around to find the roots of cultural traditions and holidays. Doing so often sheds new light and understanding on events that are usually explained away by the usual “authorities”. Those explanations are conventionally fine and do serve the purposes of social institutions and their representatives. If you’re a regular reader of bluejayblog, you’ve seen mini-essays on Christmas, New Years Day, St. Valentine’s Day and the Ides of March. Now it’s time to check out Easter.
What got me curious as a teen was the mystery of how rabbits laying eggs became associated with the Easter holiday. Nobody had a satisfactory answer. I took it upon myself to go through the book stacks at the high school library to search for answers. (The concept of the Internet wasn’t even an idea at that time, so the old fashioned techniques were used.) What I found was not only satisfying, but eye-opening as well.
As a refresher, I’ll run through the original traditional story of Eostre. We do this with Santa and the Night Before Xmas during the December holidays, so it will be in that spirit for Easter.
The creation of what we now know as the Easter Rabbit or Bunny came about when the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Fertility Eostre or Ostara, to delight her children, magically morphed a bird into a hare. Naturally the hare was unhappy about her fate. She was no longer a bird. Thus Eostre allowed the hare to lay eggs once per year. Soon enough, the Eostre Hare missed flying around. So Eostre threw the hare into the sky. This act created the Lepus constellation.
Catholic historians recall that early church fathers adopted the Eostre holiday and renamed it Easter. This was done in order to lure people of the traditional cultures and indiginous religions over to Christianity. It seems to have done the job.
So how did the Eostre Hare or Easter Rabbit find itself in North America? According to early stories, Germanic people began to associate the hare with the Easter celebrations in the 1500s. By the time of the 1700s, the people from that part of Europe had emigrated to the “New World” and settled into Pennsylvania…becoming the Pennsylvania-Dutch. The hare became known as Oschter Haws. The hare delivered her colored eggs to the hidden nests that were placed in various places by the children. Girls used their bonnets and boys their caps. Eventually, by the late 19th Century, the Pennsylvania-Dutch tradition was adopted by the rest of the US and Canada.
But why are the eggs colorful? In non-christian religions, eggs symbolize fertility. At the spring equinox, ancient Egyptians and Persians gave the gifts of brightly colored eggs to each other.
How about those tempting chocolate eggs? The Germans and the French created the chocolate confections. Their popularity was nearly instantaneous. The special eggs’ popularity spread throughout Europe and then quickly to North America.
The Easter basket is the product of blended traditions, too. The ancient custom of bringing baskets full of the first of the new crops and seedlings to the temple for blessings by the priests were important to the original cultures. Eventually the Roman Catholic church adapted this tradition to that of having the parishioners bring their Easter feasts in baskets to Mass for blessing by the parish priest. Soon enough, the Pennsylvania-Dutch practice of nests and the traditions of Persian/Egyptian colored eggs, along with the new-fangled chocolate eggs came together into what we’re familiar with today.
Our days are becoming longer, our hormones are getting friskier and the flowers are blooming. The northern hemisphere of our planet is beginning its annual cycle of renewal.
The Blue Jay of Happiness wants you to please keep your hands off his nest of goodies.