British parents are no doubt delighted to discover that chocolate Easter egg prices are at ‘rock bottom’ in 2015 thanks to supermarket discounts.
Meanwhile, Church of England Archbishops are unhappy because The Real Easter Egg, the one with a booklet telling the story of the Resurrection, has been crowded out by eggs representing Darth Vader, Doctor Who or Postman Pat.
The Real Easter Egg
Meaningful Chocolate produces The Real Easter Egg, a tasty teaching aid (my words) which comes with a small booklet explaining why eggs are a central symbol of the Resurrection.
The Warrington-based company has been making the eggs for four years. However, it is not always easy for them to negotiate shelf space. Their website provides a list of UK supermarkets selling the egg, made with quality Fairtrade chocolate.
David Marshall, who runs Meaningful Chocolate, told the Daily Mail:
We do wonder at times if there is an anti-Christian agenda from some of our supermarkets who just keep turning it down. It is as if some feel Christianity is politically incorrect or the Easter story, which mentions Jesus, might put people off.
‘One buyer asked us what Easter had got to do with the Church, while another simply said, “I don’t think this is a credible product” and asked us to leave.’
John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, and George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, are urging Asda, the Co-op and Sainsbury’s to stock the egg.
Pagan, useful or both?
A growing number of Christians all over the world, but mainly in the United States, consider that, as the Easter egg and the Easter Bunny are not in the Bible and that they were part of pagan rituals, they have no place in the Resurrection story.
Yet, when we think back to the early centuries of Christianity, when missionaries risked life and limb travelling around Europe to spread the Gospel, what was the best way for them to tell people about Jesus? One cannot help but think of St Patrick, who taught about the Holy Trinity using a shamrock.
We’re talking about people who were illiterate and whose lives revolved around nature, upon which they were dependent for survival. The world then was not the way it is now: clean, sanitised, educated, plentiful. Life was precarious. Death was just around the corner. Food was not widely available 365 days a year. Hens stopped laying eggs. Animals went into hibernation. Most crops were unsustainable during frosty months. Is it any wonder, then, that people rejoiced at the advent of Spring?
Most of today’s well-meaning believers labelling everything ‘pagan’ are driving everywhere, buying food at a supermarket and maintaining their lawns devoid of other life. Look at any suburb.
Under such privileged circumstances, it is easy to denounce symbolism of the ancient world as being purely pagan with no crossover into Christianity. The same was true during the Reformation in discarding anything symbolic or exemplary, such as stained glass illustrations of biblical events or recalling the lives of the saints, many of whom died for the faith.
Fine, for those who wish to do that. However, there is another side to the story.
Hares and rabbits represented life
Explore God has a good article explaining what the hare and, later, the rabbit, represented for ancient peoples.
Life and fertility are intertwined in man’s atavistic need for survival and propagation. No animal represents these characteristics quite as well as the beautiful hare or cuddly rabbit.
Explore God tells us that a thousand years before Christ was born, the peoples of Mesopotamia and Syria viewed the hare as representative of life and rebirth. In the Greco-Roman world, gravestones had depictions of rabbits for the same reason.
The early Christians also used the hare and the rabbit to represent rebirth in the resurrected Christ.
The ancient world, northern European traditions and ‘Easter’
The word Easter is only used in Teutonic, Scandinavian and English languages.
Therefore, English-speakers would do well to stop saying that Easter is a pagan feast. We might have appropriated a pagan word for it (as we did with Sunday), but it is not universally known as that in every other language.
Infoplease says (emphases mine):
Prior to that, the holiday had been called Pasch (Passover), which remains its name in most non-English languages.
In French, for example, it is Pâques. The Passover which the Jews celebrate is called Pâques juif.
Explore God summarises the possible origins of the word ‘Easter':
– The ancient German fertility goddess Eostra, associated with the hare;
– The ancient Norse word for Spring, which, translated into German is ostern.
It is difficult to know which came first: ostern or Eostra.
Infoplease says that the Venerable Bede, chronicler of the early Anglo-Saxon world that he witnessed, described the month of what we now call April as being named after Eostra:
“Eostremonat,” or Eostre’s month, leading to “Easter” becoming applied to the Christian holiday that usually took place within it.
Some historians see no connection with the Babylonian and Assyrian goddess Ishtar as her feasts occurred later in Spring. Explore God explains:
It seems probable that around the second century A.D., Christian missionaries seeking to convert the tribes of northern Europe noticed that the Christian holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus roughly coincided with the Teutonic springtime celebrations, which emphasized the triumph of life over death. Christian Easter gradually absorbed the traditional symbols.
On the other hand, Christina Georgiou explains Eostre’s connection with the hare and the Ishtar story. Easter was not established until 325 AD at the first Council of Nicaea:
… co-opting an existing pagan holiday served the purpose of sowing the seeds of a new religion on existing faith.
In the east, the festival of Ishtar (correctly pronounced ‘Easter’) and the resurrection of Tammuz also took place shortly after the equinox.
Still, they might have been on to something, even if it wasn’t exactly new. The holiday they picked had many of the same connotations attached.
The mystery of death and resurrection is remarkably similar in many places and times, and the time of year when it is recognized is practically universal across the northern hemisphere …
The totem of Eostre is a hare—and according to the story, the goddess can turn into a hare at will. In one legend, the goddess comes upon an injured bird, who she saves by turning into a hare, it being the animal she is strongest as. Yet, having been a bird, this hare could still lay eggs, and in gratitude to the goddess, the bird laid colored eggs on her feast day ever since.
The hare heralded new life as did lilies — and the first eggs of the season.
Other related rituals
Georgiou goes on to explain that whether pagans of the ancient world worshipped Ishtar in the Cradle of Civilisation, Adonis/Aphrodite in Mediterranean lands or Eostre in the North, certain practices and rituals surrounded the vernal equinox.
One of these was fasting from meat for 40 days prior to the equinox. Some cultures cut down a tree in the shape of a ‘T’, commemorating Tammuz’s death and resurrection, which they believed occurred soon after the equinox. In the days approaching this time, pagans sang songs of mourning and held a vigil. On the appropriate morning, the priest or shaman comforted mourners by telling them that they, too, would rise like Tammuz from the grave to new life.
From this, it is easy to see why Church fathers established the feast of the Resurrection at a similar time. Fasting could easily translate into Jesus’s time in the desert to fast and pray. The tree held significance as Jesus died on the Cross.
Pagans and fundamentalist Protestants might be angry about this history for different reasons, but the springtime story helped to spread Christianity in earliest times throughout Africa, the Middle East, Mediterranean countries and Europe. What’s not to like?
Eggs, hens and early civilisations
We’re used to going to the supermarket to buy eggs. It’s nothing unusual for us. Eggs are on sale all year round.
However, historically, this is a relatively recent development.
Hens cannot lay eggs without a generous supply of light. Today, this is done artificially indoors so that we can enjoy them throughout the year. However, in the old days, as daylight grew shorter, people used to gather eggs for winter storage. At some point during the winter when production had ground to a halt, they probably ran out or the eggs spoiled.
Once longer days rolled around in the Spring, hens guarded their newly-laid eggs by hiding them. Georgiou tells us:
When does laying season begin? You guessed it.
And, if you’ve ever kept free-range chickens, you know that this time of year they hide them everywhere. Yes, even in the grass. (No, I never kept chickens, but when I was in college, my landlord did, and these are things I can attest to personally.)
Hmm. Think of American Easter baskets. They have artificial grass and chocolate eggs, a throwback to a hen’s natural behaviour.
She explains that in pagan times, the hare’s winter behaviour — nocturnal — was associated with the moon. In springtime, hares resumed running around during the day. Eggs also began reappearing; pagans connected them with the sun, the ‘golden egg':
The two together indicate a balance between the sun and moon, appropriate for a holiday that is centered around the vernal equinox, a time of equal day and night, and also to indicate the fertility of the season.
Therefore, eggs were a prominent food at pagan rituals taking place at this time. Infoplease says that the ancient Egyptians, Persians and Romans all used them.
Early Christian missionaries used the egg as a symbol for the Resurrection: out of the hard shell (the tomb), new life emerges.
As Christianity displaced paganism, various peoples attached this symbolism to the egg. Elaborate decorations also appeared.
The pagan fasting became a Christian tradition, recalling Christ’s own 40 days in the desert. Not only was meat restricted, eggs were, too. Easter represented Christ’s Resurrection and the end of the fast.
People gave each other eggs as gifts, a token of mutual rejoicing at new life through our Lord’s victory over death and the tomb.
Christians in the Middle East and Greece painted eggs bright red, recalling His blood shed for our sins. Armenians carefully emptied the contents of the egg then painted the shells with pictures of our Lord, Mary and the saints. Early Germans also hollowed out eggs which they hung on trees. They coloured whole eggs green to give to family and friends on Maundy Thursday.
Austrians buried eggs in plants with decorative foliage. When they boiled the eggs afterward, a pretty plant pattern emerged on the shell. Further east, the Poles and the Ukranians painted eggs silver and gold. They also developed an elaborate method of egg decoration called pysanky. This involved applying designs in wax on the eggshell before dying it. They reapplied wax then boiled the egg again in other colours of dye. The end product was a multi-coloured, patterned delight.
In Russia, Tsar Alexander III wanted an exquisite Easter present for his wife. In 1885, he commissioned Pierre Faberge to create the first of what we know as Faberge eggs.
The white week — hebdomada alba — and Easter parades
Traditionally, Easter has been the time when catechumens — those who have been instructed in the faith — were baptised.
Centuries ago, the newly baptised wore white robes during Easter week to symbolise their new life in Christ. That week was referred to in early Christianity as hebdomada alba: ‘white week’ in Latin.
Infoplease says that during the Middle Ages local churches arranged religious processions after Mass on Easter Day. The congregation processed in their towns or villages following the clergy and deacons who carried a processional cross and/or a Paschal candle, which would have been lit at the Easter vigil service. Unlike today, people dressed up for church and Easter would have represented the perfect occasion for wearing new, Sunday best attire. Hats and bonnets would have been important, too, as they were seen by everyone. These processions, originally religious and solemn, became more secular and joyful. They evolved into what we know as Easter Parades.
The German Easter Hare — the children’s judge
From what we have seen so far in the history of springtime and Easter symbolism, we know that a) it was an important time of year as it meant food production could recommence, b) ancient civilisations attached atavistic importance to the hare and the egg and c) Christianity was able to biblically use certain elements — fasting, the tree of sacrifice and the egg — to make Christ’s death and resurrection more understandable to pagan populations.
In the 16th century, possibly the 15th, Germans borrowed the aforementioned Eostre story about the transformation of the bird into a hare that could lay eggs and transformed it into a religious Oschter Haws or Osterhase (‘Easter Hare’).
Children were told that a special hare would deliver gifts of colored eggs to the baskets made by good little boys and girls. Homemade baskets were crafted from bonnets and capes, and then hidden within the home. This tradition has evolved into modern-day Easter egg hunts and Easter baskets!
The first German settlers in the United States brought this tradition to Pennsylvania.
Parents told their children to be good or else the Easter Hare would not leave them a treat. I read elsewhere that the Easter Hare might determine that bad children needed a good whipping instead of a basket.
The Easter Hare — now the Easter Bunny — arrived in secret to leave these hidden eggs. From this we have the traditional Easter Egg Hunt.
We can see the similarity of the Easter Bunny with Father Christmas/Santa Claus operating on the reward-punishment basis. In Dutch traditions, Sinter Klaas (St Nick) goes around in the early hours of the morning on St Nicholas’s feast day — December 6 — to leave a treat or nothing. Sinter Klaas travels with his friend Black Pete, who metes out a whipping to bad boys and girls. These days, Black Pete is seen as politically incorrect. Whether he was actually from central Africa as today’s activists say is unclear. The best testimony on that came from one of my ex-colleagues, a Dutchman, who said that the warning his parents gave him before December 6 was, ‘Be good or the Spaniards will take you away!’ This refers to the long-standing rivalry centuries ago between the Netherlands and Spain. It is possible that Pete — Piet, in Dutch — represented Spaniards who would have had somewhat darker skin. Or Piet could have represented a similar-shaded person from St Nicholas’s native Turkey. Another theory posits that Piet was covered in soot from sliding down so many chimneys.
But I digress.
Suffice it to say that the Church’s principal feasts share this mandate for children to be good — or else. It’s an easy way of shaping their early behaviour into a civilised, godly one. What harm can that do? The child can digest ‘reward-punishment’ better than he can theology at that stage. That is not to say theology should not be paramount even then with prayers and Bible stories, but the ‘reward-punishment’ principle teaches simple, practical lessons quickly. A child’s mind only runs to the immediate future.
How Easter treats further developed
Germans developed the first edible Easter Hares out of pastry and sugar in the early 1800s.
Today, Easter is the second largest day of candy consumption during the year. The first, at least in the United States, is Hallowe’en. Here in the UK, it is probably Christmas.
We are awash in chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies in the run-up to Easter. In fact, one of our local shops brought out creme eggs on the 11th day of Christmas this year: January 5!
We don’t have Easter baskets here in the UK, and now, having done this research, I know why.
Twenty-five (or more) years ago, candy companies sold complimentary mugs, sometimes egg cups, with their Easter eggs. This went by the wayside 20 years ago, unfortunately, although I was able to procure a Snickers mug for the 1990 World Cup, a Kit Kat one the following year and an M&Ms one, my last mug purchase. I still have all three. They are fun and practical.
Easter cards became popular in Victorian England. A 19th century stationer had a card with a hare on it and added a seasonal greeting. From there the rest is history.
Today, at least in the United States, Easter is the fourth-most popular greeting card holiday after Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Last but not least — the pretzel
Before leaving the food aspect of Easter, it is worth pointing out that the pretzel is an Easter treat.
Apparently, the pretzel is the world’s oldest snack food. In 610 AD, an Italian monk wondered what to do with leftover bread dough. He decided to make small twists of dough, the shape of which was meant to resemble children’s arms folded in prayer.
Conclusion — and the Passover connection
In closing, what is important about Easter is that Christ Crucified – Christ Risen is the most important concept we can share with young people. An Easter basket helps to convey to a little one that shared joy of everlasting life through our Lord’s death and resurrection.
And we might also recall that one symbol — the egg — came to the Jewish Christians from the original Passover seder. Therefore, we acknowledge our spiritual history with the Old Testament as well as Jesus’s mandate for us in the Last Supper:
the hard-boiled egg is one of the seven symbols set out on the Seder plate. Easter and Passover, after all, are strongly connected to each other. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus celebrated a Passover meal with his disciples just before the crucifixion. After the disciples began proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection, they continued to celebrate a yearly Passover in the way Jesus had instructed them to, remembering his death and, more importantly, what his death and resurrection meant for them.
Whatever way you choose to celebrate Easter with your family, I wish you a very happy one, indeed.