The most joyous of Christian festivals and one of the first celebrated by Christians across the Roman Empire commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is set on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. The English word Easter corresponding to the German “Oster,” reveals the association of many Easter customs with those of the Teutonic tribes of central Europe.
When Christianity reached these people, it incorporated many of their “heathen” (of the heath) rites into the great Christian feast day, according to the Venerable Bede, a monk who wrote the first history of Christianity in England. Easter month, corresponding to our April, was dedicated to Eostre, or Ostara, goddess of the spring. This was in common with the time of spring and the triumph of life over death.
The practice of eating eggs on Easter Sunday and giving them as gifts to friends and children probably arose because, in the earlier days of the church, eggs were forbidden food during Lent (the 40 days before Easter) and were therefore always eaten on Easter Sunday. But the custom of coloring eggs goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who practiced this custom during their spring festival.
Edward I “Longshanks” of England back in 1290 bought 450 eggs to be covered either in gold leaf or colored and then distributed to the “royal entourage” during Easter that year. The practice is mentioned again in the 16th century when the Pope sent to Henry VIII of England an egg he’d enclosed in a silver case and known as “eggsilver” as a seasonal present. This was when Henry was still in the good graces of the Roman church.
The Easter hare, or bunny, comes from antiquity as well. The hare is associated with the moon in the legends of ancient Egypt. It belongs to the night when it comes out to feed. It is born with its eyes opened and, like the moon, is “the open-eyed watcher of the skies.” The hare became associated with the idea of periodicity, both lunar and human, and so became a symbol of fertility and the renewal of life. As such, the hare became linked with the Easter, or paschal eggs.
In the early days of the folklore, the Easter Bunny carried red eggs, symbolizing the blood of Jesus. The Easter bunny likely came to America in the 1700s with German immigrants to Pennsylvania, where their fabled egg-laying Osterhase could lay their colored eggs in nests that children made for them. Both chocolate bunnies and eggs became popular across the U.S. in the 19th century, with baskets replacing nests. Easter remains the second best-selling candy holiday in America following Halloween.
Although Easter — the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus — was celebrated very early in the church, its date was not agreed upon Empire-wide until A.D. 325 when the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. There it was decided that it should be observed on
the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox.
It was to be fixed each year at Alexandria, Egypt, then the center of astronomical science. The date is an approximation and may differ from year to year.
This means that its date may vary as much as 35 days!
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian