Sunday, April 4, 2010

In Remembrance of Our Dear, Sweet, Ēostre

Ah Easter, one of my favorite pagan holidays. It's a time when we are supposed to lie back, enjoy family, and remember the resurrection of Jesus. Most importantly, however, it's about the bunnies, eggs, and candy.

But, that's where the "Christian" aspect of Easter sort of . . . fades away. If Easter is such a Christian holiday, then why is it that we celebrate it with things that are so not Christian, like hares and eggs?

A lot of Christian holidays are like this. Over time, they become a mix of both Christian and non-Christian practices. This is due to the fact that, when the Catholic Church was really solidifying its doctrine and creating these holidays, they didn't exactly pull them out of their asses.
You see, in order to avoid culture shock, the Church simply modified existing holidays. Celebrations like Easter and Christmas soon became infused with the pagan traditions of the Germanic and Semitic tribes that lived in Europe at the time. Those traditions continue today, but a lot of people don't realize the meaning behind what they are celebrating.

Easter is full of Germanic traditions. Even its name has some pagan influences. The word Easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre, whose corresponding month in the Germanic calendar was called Ēostur-monath: the equivalent of April. Ēostre was the Northumbrian spelling of the goddess' name, while Ēastre was the West Saxons (Easter comes most likely from the West Saxon form). The Anglo-Saxons held many feasts in her honor during this month, and it is likely that the Easter feast carried on from those feast traditions.

Ēostre, however, is only mentioned by Saint Bede the Venerable in his work De Temporum Ratione. He writes that the feasts held in her honor had ended long before he wrote the book (approximately 725 CE), and that the month of Ēostur-monath had been replaced with Paschal Month. In the 19th century, a man named Jacob Grimm studied Germanic philology and tried to connect the goddess of Ēostre with a common Germanic goddess named Austron, the goddess of the dawn. The results were inconclusive, but scholars debate to this day whether or not Bede simply made up the goddess Ēostre.

Now, the Easter bunny is one of the oldest Easter traditions, and actually shares its roots with Santa Claus, its Christmas-time counterpart. The bunny, according to tradition, visits children the night before the Easter feast and either hides the eggs, or leaves them in a designated area. The Easter bunny made its first appearance in Georg Franck von Frankenau's De Ovis Paschalibus (About the Easter Egg), which referred to an Alsace tradition regarding the Easter hare and the eggs. Like most other Easter traditions, the Easter bunny is not an original Easter celebration.

In fact, the modern form of the Easter bunny has its origins in Alsace and the Upper Rhineland during the 1600's, and was brought to America in the 1800's during the mass immigration of Germans. With them came all of the traditions relating to the bunny, which included the building of brightly colored nests by the children. In fact, just like Christmas, the children had to be good all year in order to get candy from the bunny. The traditions go even further back than that.

The Easter hare was a pagan symbol of extreme antiquity. Birds, rabbits, and other animals gave birth during the spring, which gave rise to the use of those animals as symbols for fertility. This is especially true for the rabbits, which give birth to very large litters during that time of year (this is where we get the phrase "to breed like bunnies", or variations of it). Not only did the animals become associated with animal and human fertility, but they became symbols of the rising fertility of the earth at the Vernal Equinox. In sort of an ironic twist, the Vernal Equinox is also used to calculate the date of the Easter feast (it's the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the Vernal Equinox).

Easter eggs follow a similar pattern. They were symbols of new life to the ancient Germanic tribes, just as the hare and bird were. The basket that they were placed in when hidden by the Easter bunny originally was filled with grass, to represent a birds nest.

When the Catholic Church was setting aside a date for the Easter feast, instead of creating their own they simply modified existing holidays, namely the feasts of the Vernal Equinox celebrated by the Germanic tribes. The symbols of fertility, the hare, nest, and egg, soon became symbols of the resurrection of Jesus, and of his grave.

You see, nothing about Christianity is original (at least, wholly). It is simply the modification of existing traditions that were changed to meet their beliefs. It's like buying a store, and instead of rebuilding it you just changing the sign out front: it's much easier isn't it. Let's also not forget the fact that the dates for the Easter feast (as well as the dates of Jesus' birthday, and every other Christian celebration) were not decided until the mid-fourth century at the Council of Nicaea. Nothing was decided by men who actually knew any of this information.

So, as you enjoy family today, remember the true origins and meaning behind what you are celebrating. Honestly, for me, that is what makes the holidays worth celebrating.

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