How are eggs yo(l)ked to Easter?

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Did you ever stop to wonder why Christmas is always on 25 December but Easter is kind of a moving target? In 2011, Easter fell on 24 April. Last year, it fell on 8 April. This year, it fell on 31 March. Next year, it falls on 20 April…

This thought process kicked in when I was tiptoeing around my home late on Saturday hiding Easter eggs for my soon-to-be 6 year old daughter to find in the morning. Mia has become quite adept at asking questions that most parents would answer with "Because I say so!" or "Ask your mother".

For her right now, the Easter Egg Hunt is all about the fun of finding them and consuming them, but sooner or later, the question is going to come: "Dad, why do we get eggs at Easter?"

What should I respond? "Well Mia, there was this really cool guy named Jesus who lived some 2000 years ago who said all men were brothers and that love would conquer all and so they nailed him to a cross and killed him but three days later he woke up and so the Easter bunny hides eggs one Sunday every year."

"But dad, bunnies don't lay eggs…"

Easter is a strange entity. Let's map out what we do know.

Firstly, this is the most important festival in the Christian calendar – yes, more so than Christmas. But in most parts of the world, it is not called "Easter".

The original name of the festival in the 2nd century AD according to the Greek and Latin was Pascha derived from the Hebrew word Pesach ("Passover"). Most of the non-English speaking world use the name Pasch or Pascha to refer to what we English-speakers call Easter.

Secondly, the timing of Easter is not reflective of the anniversary of Christ's crucifixion but rather a political position.

In 325 AD, Roman emperor Constantine I convened a council of Christian bishops in Nicaea. The purpose of this gathering was to draft the foundation of what was to become the Canon laws governing all of the Christian churches. Up until that time, Christian Easter observance largely coincided with Jewish observance of Passover.

Constantine was having none of that. He declared, "…it seemed very unworthy for us to keep this most sacred feast following the custom of the Jews… Since we have cast aside their way of calculating the date of the festival, we can ensure that future generations can celebrate this observance at the more accurate time…".

(By the way, I've censored Constantine's comments about Jews – feel free to look at the original text if hate speech doesn't bother you.)

The rule put in place by Constantine and the council was that the date of Easter would be the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox (21 March).

And that's why Easter moves around the calendar.

So where does the name "Easter" come from?

English is a Germanic language. Ēostre is a goddess in Germanic paganism and the Germanic month bearing her name coincided with what we today know as Easter. During Ēosturmōnaþ (roughly the month of April) feasts were held in Eostre's honor among the pagan Anglo-Saxons. As Christianity took hold, these feasts were replaced by the Christian "Pascha" festivities but the name "Easter" continued to be associated with that time.

So where did the eggs and rabbits come from? In the northern hemisphere, the March equinox signals the start of spring, which is a time when birds lay eggs in abundance and rabbits breed prolifically making them both Pagan fertility symbols. The abundance of eggs and rabbits continued to coincide with the Christian Pascha celebrations and were absorbed into the Christian traditions. Eastern Christians to this day dye Easter eggs red to symbolise the blood of Christ.

The association of the Easter Bunny with the festival is relatively new from the 17th century – probably somewhere around the same time that Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope, setting in motion a series of events which led to your reading these words.

Happy Easter. I hope yours was as good as mine.