One of the things I most enjoy is finding out what lies behind many traditional celebrations. Whenever I’ve done this I’ve learned that what I thought I knew, what I was told at school, and by my parents, is usually wrong.
Since we moved to Wales, I’ve become very interested in Paganism, and the role of nature in many belief systems. We’re lucky enough to live somewhere that is truly magical, and it’s impossible to think that that there isn’t something spiritual about the natural world.
And it is paganism, and old beliefs that I often find are at the heart of mainstream celebrations today.
Easter is no exception. Easter falls in Spring – a time of renewal and rebirth, a time when we finally get some sunshine and warmth, and the countryside is awash with golden daffodils. It’s a time of hope, and optimism, and is full of promise of long, warm days to come (even here in Wales!).
The date on which we celebrate Easter each year is also governed by those old beliefs. Very old beliefs, in fact. Easter Day is set by the lunisolar calendar, which was created in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. It falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.
And the word ‘Easter’ itseLf has nothing to do with Christianity. Most European countries believe the word derives from the Hebrew word ‘Pesach’ – or Passover, the Jewish holiday. In English-speaking countries and Germany, however, it has been argued that the word is derived from the name of a Pagan springtime goddess – Ēostre.
Ēostre is the Germanic goddess of dawn. She was traditionally celebrated with festivals celebrating fertility, renewal and rebirth. The goddess is often depicted with hares or actually with the head and shoulders of a hare – which leads us to the rather strange Easter bunny!
The hare brings us back to the importance of the moon to the date of Easter. Hares, like the moon, were though to die and be reborn every day, making the hare a symbol of immortality, new life, and rebirth.
Of course, the egg is a symbol of new life, fertility and creation, which probably led to the inclusion of coloured eggs in the celebrations (they weren’t always made of chocolate!). Hares are my favourite animal (after dogs!), and the house is full of them (not real ones, of course, pictures, paintings and ornaments, even a teapot!). They’re beautiful, almost other-worldly, and I love too the story around the beautiful harebell flower – that witches turn into hares and hide amongst these gorgeous blooms.
As a child I was convinced that hot cross buns were a symbol of the crucifixion, which always struck me as a bit morbid, and a bit inappropriate, to be honest. In fact, the cross on the bun originated with the Ancient Egyptians, to create four sections, representing the four phases of the moon or the four seasons, depending on the festival being celebrated. Later, Greeks and Romans offered sweetened rolls to Eos, goddess of the morning and to Ēostre. Here, the cross represented the horns of a sacrificial ox.
So how is it that we now associate all these things with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus?
Following the rise of Christianity, many new feast days and celebrations were attached to the previous Pagan festivals. And as the older religions were ‘discouraged’ the new festivals took over.
I think I’ll feel a bit more comfortable eating my hot cross bun this morning thinking about the moon and the individual beauty that each season brings! And there will, of course, be lots of chocolate eggs!
However you’re celebrating, have a wonderful Easter weekend!