Holidays: What do Rabbits, Chickens and the Moon have in Common? Easter

What is Easter?

Spring is a time of birth and new life. That is where most Easter traditions agree.

In modern times, Easter is regarded as a Christian holy day, but the celebration and its traditions probably grew from similar celebrations in many ancient cultures and religions.

In Babylon, thousands of years before the birth of Christ, a holiday called Ishtar (pronounced "Easter") was held to celebrate the resurrection of their god, Tammuz. He was brought back from the underworld by Ishtar (the name they gave to Venus - the morning star). On Sunday, a day sacred to the Sun, the ultimate symbol of life, homes were decorated with flowers and colourful designs were painted on eggs, which were placed into baskets. Families went to sunrise services to celebrate the resurrection of their saviour and the renewal of life.

The name Easter could have also come from Ostera or Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, for whom a spring festival was held annually.

When is Easter?

Easter is not on the same day every year. Why is this?

In the Old Testament, the first Passover occurred when God commanded that the Israelites mark the doors of their houses with the blood of a slain lamb. While Egypt suffered the plague of death, the death angel "passed over" all the Israelite houses that were protected by obeying God's command.

The first Christians continued to observe the Jewish festivals of Passover but regarded Christ as the true lamb of God. The lamb eaten on Passover evening each year was replaced by the New Testament symbols of bread and wine.

But over the years, Easter came to be celebrated on different dates by different churches.

In 325 AD, the council of Nicaea tried to get all the Christian Churches to celebrate the holiday on the same day. But it wasn't until 427 AD that this actually happened.

Since that time Easter has been held on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the Vernal Equinox. If the full moon falls on a Sunday, the Easter is celebrated on the Sunday after.

The Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs

There are no animals on earth with more of a reputation for fertility (making babies) than the hare and the rabbit. So they were natural symbols of new life during the Spring season.

German text from the 1500s first mentions rabbits as symbols of Easter. During the 1800s, the Germans made the first edible bunnies out of pastry and sugar.

The full moon not only tells us when Easter will be celebrated, but it is also related to the rabbits. Chinese artists often painted the moon with rabbits racing across its face and have shown the moon as a rabbit pounding rice in a mortar.

In a Buddhist story a rabbit voluntarily gave himself as food for one of Buddha's hungry friends and as a reward, Buddha placed him on the moon.

In Hindu mythology, a rabbit jumps into a fire, cooking himself for Indra, the ruler of the gods. Indra thanks him by putting the rabbit in the moon.

The egg symbolizes renewal of life in almost every culture in the world so it makes sense that it has become a part of our Easter celebrations.

A roasted egg can take the place of a lamb shank on the Seder plate at a Jewish Passover celebration.

Decorating and giving eggs as gifts is common in many cultures.

These eggs are often hollowed out, dyed in different colours (in Greek tradition they are dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ), sometimes made of candy and sometimes painted with colourful designs. Perhaps the most famous and artistic of these are Ukrainian Pysanki eggs.

In the 1700's, the Pennsylvania Dutch introduced the Easter bunny to North America. Their children were told that if they were well behaved, the Oschter Haws (Easter Bunny) would lay a nest of coloured eggs.

The children built nests out of caps and bonnets in out-of-the-way places in the home, the barn or the garden.

The connection between eggs and the Easter Bunny was made more popular throughout the Western World by European candy makers who launched an ad campaign to promote their products.

And since they wanted people to buy lots of candy, there had to be a container to put them in.

The original idea of Easter baskets came from an old Catholic custom of putting the food for Easter dinner into a basket and bringing it to mass to be blessed. This tradition may have grown out of an even more ancient ritual of ensuring good crops by offering food to their gods at the temple.

In North America, Easter Egg Hunts are popular traditions where the eggs are hidden around the house or outdoors and then children search for them.

CNM