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The stories behind Easter

BY Sandra Blemster

4th Apr 2023 Life

The stories behind Easter

We know about the Easter Bunny and colourful and/or chocolate Easter eggs, but do you know the origin stories behind these Easter traditions (and others?)

We all know Easter traditionally as the time on the Christian calendar that commemorates Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. It comes after the period of fasting, known as Lent. We give Easter eggs and talk about the Easter Bunny. But there are many other stories surrounding the meaning of Easter, so let’s have a look.

Eostre and the Equinox

Easter is celebrated just after the Vernal Equinox of March 20th. In Latin, Equinox means "Aequinoctium|"—equal night. It’s the time of year when the days and nights are of equal length, again, to welcome in spring in the Northern hemisphere.

The date for Easter changes for each year and is linked to the phases of the moon and the Jewish spring festival of Passover. This year it is on April 9, which follows the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the Vernal Equinox.

"The word for Easter is thought to have possibly come from the name Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess associated with fertility"

The word for Easter is thought to have possibly come from the name Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess associated with fertility, though it is not known if this is true. This school of thought was developed also by the English monk and one of the greatest scholars of this period, The Venerable Bede (AD 672—735). He produced a large number of works relating to poetry, music, science, and biblical commentary.

Ostara

Germanic spring goddess Ostara
Germanic spring goddess Ostara/Eostre. Credit: Johannes Gehrts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Germany, the goddess is called Ostara and their festival is called Ostern. She is thought to be the German Goddess of spring and dawn. Some scholars were at odds as to whether Ostara actually existed. However, the folklorist Jacob Grimm seems to have disagreed.

In his book Teutonic Mythology he suggested she was a local version of a more widely-known Germanic goddess who was named Ostara. We have no real way of knowing if she did exist. However, the legends surrounding her are certainly interesting.

Easter Bunny

There are different accounts of stories relating to Easter rabbits and hares and Ostara’s connection with them. One is that she arrived late to start spring one year and found a bird with frozen wings. Feeling guilty at her late arrival, she turned it into a rabbit or snow hare which then laid colourful eggs. However, the bunny/hare started having lots of affairs, so to punish him, she exiled him to the sky to lay at the feet of Orion. Apparently this is where the constellation of "The Hare" originated from. Eventually, she relented, and allowed him to return to earth just once a year to deliver his eggs to children who had been "good".

"A story about the Easter Bunny is that spring goddess Ostara turned a bird with frozen wings into a rabbit, which then laid colourful eggs"

Isabel Ludick, from PetKeen.com. states, “Rabbits are seen as symbols of fertility and rebirth. Perhaps because they reproduce at such rapid rates. A rabbit can get pregnant a couple of hours after giving birth! Easter takes place in spring, a season when our natural environment goes through a sort of rebirth. That could explain why this holiday is symbolised by rabbits".

But do hares and rabbits have a religious significance?

The Three Hares Project

The mysterious three hares motif in a church in DevonThe mysterious three hares motif in a church in Devon. Credit: Chris Chapman

Apparently, the symbol of three hares in a circle, joined by their ears, has been seen all over the world. These sightings range from ceilings in medieval churches in Devon, to the back of an Islamic coin, to a Buddhist temple cave in China. Yet their meaning today still remains a mystery.

The Three Hares Project was started in 2000 to document and research the occurrences of these symbols. Set-up by three Devon-based researchers: art historian, Sue Andrew, cultural environmentalist, Dr Tom Greeves, and Chris Chapman, a film-maker and photographer.

They have been researching the symbol and its meaning for over 20 years and have written a book on it called A Curiosity Worth Regarding. The research started in Devon and then covered England and Wales. In 1717 a Browne Willis wrote a book about St David’s Cathedral in Wales. A correspondent of his, William Wotton, had described the motif there as "A curiosity worth regarding", thus came the title of the book.

The earliest known examples of the motif go back to sixth-century China in Buddhist temples. Nobody seems to know what they represent, but they span across different countries and religions. Whether there is a connection with Easter is not known.

Eggs as we know them today

Gold-wrapped chocolate Easter eggsGold-wrapped chocolate Easter eggs. Credit: LisaStrachan

]The commercialisation of chocolate eggs is known to have stemmed from Germany around the 18th/19th century. Easter bunnies then were made from sugared pastry. However, dyed and painted eggs have been found to date back to England around 1290 when Edward I purchased 450 eggs at Easter to be covered in gold leaf.

"Painted eggs date back to England around 1290 when King Edward I purchased 450 eggs at Easter to be covered in gold leaf"

Originally chocolate came from the cacao seed, a tropical evergreen tree. In its purest form it is bitter tasting, but when made into cocoa butter and chocolate, the sweetness comes in. It is known for many health properties. By the time JS Fry of Bristol and Cadburys were manufacturing the eggs, they tasted like the sweet chocolate we know today.

In whatever way you celebrate the season, you at least know the richness of stories relating to it.

Banner photo credit: Tim Reckmann, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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