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The origins of Easter

As Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and children tuck into their chocolate eggs or chocolate rabbits, and everyone enjoys another long weekend, do we ever pause to wonder why Easter originated in the spring?

In Northern Europe, winter is drawing to a close and the coming of spring heralds longer days, warmer weather and the signs of new life in gardens and in the fields. Long before Christianity was born with the crucifixion and raising of Jesus Christ, ancients often described as Pagans celebrated the feast of Ēostre. Ēostre was the northern goddess of spring and the dawn and of course fertility, whose spirit was felt in new plants and births both human and animals. The rabbit, with its predisposition to reproduce, was her sacred animal.

Easter, certainly in the northern hemisphere, is eggs and chocolate rabbits, but many people are not aware that ham, a preserved pork meat which we tend to associate with Christmas, is actually eaten at Easter. The ancients at the end of winter would then eat the remaining preserved meats. Eggs always formed an important element to the pagans of Europe and the Middle East at the Spring Equinox.

The Persians, Hindus and Babylonians all saw eggs as a sacred symbol. The Babylonians believed that in their ‘world’ a gigantic egg fell from outer space into the Euphrates and from this egg the goddess Astarte was born, another explanation for the word Easter. The story of the mystic egg moved to Rome and was part of the ceremonies of Bacchus. Colouring eggs, which are a treat for children, was a custom practised by the Druids and the Chinese and Japanese for many hundreds of years. The egg was also a symbol of fertility; Easter (Semiramis) was the goddess of Fertility. The Easter egg is a symbol of the pagan Mother Goddess and even bears one of her names. Mother Goddess is represented in many ancient cultures as the embodiment of nature, fertility and the bounties that Earth gives us.

Even before Christmas and New Year celebrations are over, major supermarkets have hot cross buns on the shelves. Those small fruit buns are associated with Easter with the cross symbolizing the crucifixion yet many Christians would be surprised to know that the bun and the cross is part of an earlier pagan fare. At the end of winter Saxons baked buns with a cross in honour of the Goddess Ēostre, the cross symbolizing the four seasons and the four quarters of the moon. The early Christian Church quickly adopted the bun, recognising the cross could symbolize the resurrection of Christ. In many Christian countries hot cross buns made without dairy products may only be eaten during lent beginning with Shrove Tuesday and ending on Good Friday. It is interesting to note that in the time of Elizabeth I, the sale of hot cross buns and spiced breads was forbidden except for funerals, Good Friday and Christmas, which caused buns to be baked at home. Even King James I attempted to control the sale of the bun. There are many old wives tales and superstitions about hot cross buns – one for example is that a bun served on Good Friday will not spoil or grow mouldy during the year, another if given to a sick person it will help them recover.

Chocolate Easter eggs and rabbits are given at Easter as presents. The tradition may have started in the middle ages in northern Europe, with the giving of coloured hardboiled eggs to children. The Easter egg hunt started as a Pagan game. The question is of course: who actually started the chocolate egg and rabbit? Early German immigrants to America in 1800 brought with them the Lower Saxony Easter festival of the Easter Bunny or ‘Oschter Haws’ a custom followed later by Germans who settled in Pennsylvania and it quickly became a commercial icon for Easter.

As the children and adult chocoholics tuck into their eggs and rabbits, perhaps it is time to reflect that Easter apart from commemorating the Resurrection is also a time to reflect that Easter is new life and that Mother Nature is once again bestowing her wonderful gifts.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, March 2016, page 38.

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