The Origins of Easter Traditions

    April 19, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Easter is a Christian holiday celebrating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, so why do we celebrate with Easter traditions like painting eggs, giving kids chocolate, and searching for magical egg-laying bunnies? Strange as they are, the origins of Easter traditions are rooted in historical facts and events that date back thousands of years. We decided to dig through the history and uncover the origins of Easter traditions.

    The Date

    If you’re old enough to be reading this, then you’ve probably noticed that Easter falls on a different date every year. Jesus was obviously crucified on a specific day and he rose from the dead three days after that, so why all the confusion as to what day it is? It turns out that historians don’t really have any idea exactly when Jesus was crucified. They know it was around Passover because that’s why Jesus went to Jerusalem, but it’s nearly impossible to figure out the exact date that all of the Easter-related historical events actually transpired. That’s why they decided to just make it easy for everyone by declaring that Easter will fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the Vernal Equinox.

    cute easter bunny rabbitYes, apparently it’s easier to calculate the Sunday after the full moon after the Spring equinox than to figure out the exact day Jesus died. But wait! It gets more complicated: technically, the vernal (or Spring) equinox doesn’t fall on the same day every year, so not only is there disagreement about when Easter is, but there’s also a disagreement about the basis of the easier way to calculate when Easter should be. Western churches got tired of this junk pretty quickly, so they just declared that the Spring Equinox falls on March 21st every year (which it technically doesn’t), placing Easter around the end of March or the beginning of April. Of course, the full moon after the equinox is still a wild card, which is why whenever anyone messes up your plans it’s perfectly justifiable to call them a “stupid full moon” (trust me, this will catch on).

    The Name

    For Jewish people, Passover represents the time when the angel of death came to Jerusalem to claim the first born children, and would pass over your house if you followed the proper God-given procedures, thus saving your oldest (and probably most annoying) son’s life. So how did Christians end up calling a crucifixion and resurrection celebration “Easter”? The absolute facts are obscured by history, but the name “Easter” was most likely derived from the name of a pagan Goddess.

    cute easter bunny rabbitYes, that’s right: Easter (and some of it’s most familiar traditions) were derived from pagan rituals. The name “Easter” is derived from “Eostre”, the Anglo Saxon goddess of Spring. You see, when early Christians were going door-to-door delivering Jesus pamphlets, they started to realize something: many of the stupid barbaric pagans they were trying to spread Christianity to already had fairly complex religious systems in place, complete with their own traditions, beliefs, gods, and customs. Luckily, the Christians came up with a solution: they would just incorporate Christianity into the preexisting religion, and then slowly phase out the old traditions, sort of like Will Ferrell on The Office. They were pretty busy convincing barbarians to stop worshiping their pagan gods and start giving their money to Christian churches, and I guess they forgot about changing the name of the annual Spring festival to something a little more…well, not pagan.

    The Colored Eggs

    The tradition of colored eggs for Easter comes from a few different sources. Most pagan religions had some kind of Spring festival, because winter was ending and people were in the mood to party again. If you’ve ever lived anywhere other than Alaska or Siberia, then you know exactly how the pagans felt when Spring came along. If you’ve only lived in Alaska and Siberia, then congratulations on just getting the internet.

    cute easter bunny rabbitIn many cultures, eggs are a symbol of rebirth and new life. Therefore, eggs are commonly associated with the Spring season, when things start to come to life again. In Medieval Europe, people weren’t allowed to eat eggs during Lent, so any eggs that were produced during that time were hard boiled and preserved for later (Medieval Europeans were not big on wasting food). At the end of Lent everyone has a big Easter party, so obviously you’re gonna bust out the enormous hard boiled egg collection you’ve been accumulating for the past 40 days and chow down, which is how eggs became associated with Easter. Eggs were often presented to servants as Easter gifts (because everyone had way to many eggs at this point), and painting the eggs was kind of a nice way of saying “Hey, slave! Pretend this isn’t just a basket of hard boiled eggs!”. As for the tradition of hiding the eggs from children: that came with the tradition of a magic, santa claus-like Easter Bunny who breaks into your house at night and lays colorful eggs in secluded areas of the house. How else are you gonna get kids to celebrate an execution from 2,000 years ago?

    The Candy

    Up until about 100 years ago, it was an Easter tradition to give people the gift of food on Easter. This is because Easter falls in the Spring, when crops start growing again and people no longer had to starve their way through a bitter cold winter. In modern times, we can just go to our local grocery store and buy any kind of food we want at any time of year, but there was a time when people who didn’t own land and crops would just starve to death.

    cute bunny rabbit easterWhen it comes to finding food in modern times, the biggest problem we have is the ten minute drive to the grocery store to buy strawberries in early January. Giving somebody a bucket of potatoes for Easter isn’t really that awesome anymore, so we had to figure out a different excellent gift to give to our friends and loved ones as an Easter tradition and (as we so often do), we were forced to replace fruits and vegetables with horribly unhealthy junk food, like sugar-covered marshmallow chicks and chocolate eggs filled with delicious, slimy goop.

    The Easter Bunny

    Of all the Easter traditions we’ve discussed so far, this may be the strangest. The standard Easter Bunny lore that most of us are familiar with spawned from Germany some time in the 1500’s. According to the German lore, on the eve of Easter, a magical rabbit comes to your house and hides colorful eggs for children to find. The tradition probably started in an effort to make Easter as exciting as Christmas, which it could never be. When German immigrants flooded to the U.S. in the 1700’s, they brought the tradition with them. But there’s also a much more bizarre reason behind the Bunny as a symbol of the Easter holiday. Some people think that a magical rabbit  guided Jesus out from the depths of Hell after he was crucified.

    cute bunny rabbit easterAccording to the alternate Easter Bunny theory, God sent a magic hare down to Hell after Jesus was crucified. The hare’s job was to guide Jesus out of the depths of Hell and back to Earth in time for the resurrection. The hare went down into Hell (which is described by the Bible as “a lot like an Ikea, except everything’s on fire”) and left a trail of brightly colored eggs for the newly-deceased savior of mankind to follow, because apparently Jesus is totally cool and perceptive and all-knowing when he’s on Earth, but when he gets down in hell he’s like an old person in the grocery store. Easter: part Christian, part Pagan, part child-appeasing, part awesome.

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