Eastern connections of Easter

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

“Easter; the joy of candy, colours, creativity, and costuming. A season unlike any other.” 

—Grant Morrison, Happy!

The Sinhalese New Year is a festival of harvest and a time that people celebrate the spring season and pay tribute to the Sun God and Mother Nature. Many South Asian cultures celebrate a festival during April, to pay tribute to the Sun God, and Mother Nature, and welcome Spring along while enjoying a bountiful harvest. In many ancient cultures in South Asia, including the Sinhalese, a spring festival is celebrated during April. 

During the same month, Christians around the world celebrate Easter as a religious and cultural festival. According to Christianity, Easter Sunday is the day that they celebrate to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 

Now you must be wondering why we have talked about spring festivals in South Asia and then about Easter celebrations. It is because there is a connection between ancient spring festivals and the Christian Easter celebrations. Yes, there is a very close connection between Easter and Pagan European spring festivals. To understand this further, let us understand how Easter celebrations came into the limelight and how Easter is celebrated in the Christian world. 

What is Easter in Christianity?

According to historical sources, Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans at Calvary in the early 4th century CE. Three days after his death, as the New Testament describes, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, which is known as the Resurrection of Jesus in Christianity. 

The day of the resurrection is believed to be the day today known as Easter Sunday and the Easter festival is celebrated to commemorate this important religious incident. Devotees celebrate this day in a very religious manner, through prayers, and spending time in the church. For some Christians, Easter is preceded by a period of fasting and reflection known as Lent, which lasts for 40 days and commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. Lent is a time of spiritual preparation, self-examination, and repentance, culminating in the celebration of Easter Sunday.

According to Christian belief, Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and buried in a tomb, but on the third day – Easter Sunday – he rose from the dead, conquering sin and death and offering salvation to all who believe in him. This miraculous event is commemorated with special church services, prayers, and hymns, as well as the decoration of churches with flowers and other symbols of new life.

Christian Easter and Pagan spring festivals

Talking about symbols of new life and Jesus Christ’s resurrection, which is something similar to rebirth (not in a religious view) and the never-ending cycle of life, spring festivals are also about new life, rebirth, abundance of nature, and celebrating the cycle of life. The month of April, during which Easter is celebrated, is a month that marks the arrival of spring, the success of harvest, and celebrating life. 

In addition to its religious significance, Easter is also a time for families and communities to come together and celebrate. Many people gather for festive meals and gatherings, sharing traditional Easter foods such as roast lamb, ham, and hot cross buns. Easter parades, pageants, and other public events are also common, with participants dressed in colourful costumes and carrying banners and symbols of Easter.

Easter celebrations that are borrowed from ancient spring festivals

Historians and folklorists speculate that the Christian Easter festival has its origins in a much older pagan spring festival. The many decorations used in Easter celebrations have no clear and sensible meaning or connection with Christianity. Thus, they hint at a pagan origin.

 One of the most iconic symbols of Easter is the Easter egg, which has its roots in ancient fertility rituals. Eggs were traditionally decorated and exchanged as gifts to symbolise new life and rebirth. Today, Easter eggs are still a popular tradition, with children hunting for chocolate eggs hidden by the Easter Bunny, a mythical figure associated with the holiday. In many cultures, eggs are also dyed and painted in vibrant colours as a symbol of the joy and hope of Easter.

Hence, according to historians and folklorists, the origins of Easter can be traced back to ancient pagan festivals celebrating the arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature. These festivals often included rituals and ceremonies symbolising fertility, renewal, and the triumph of life over death. When Christianity spread throughout Europe, these pagan traditions were gradually incorporated into the Christian celebration of Easter, resulting in a rich tapestry of customs and practices that continue to this day. 

Easter derives from Eostre, the goddess of spring

Spring time or the time during April is the time of the equinox which is the time of celebration of the ancient European Spring Fertility Festival that honoured the pagan goddess Eostre or Ostara, or Oestera. This spring festival was celebrated to pay tribute to spring, a miraculous phenomenon of Mother Nature that brings life and happiness. This festival also pays tribute to the new life of Mother Earth, the rebirth of life after the dull, cold, and harsh winter.

 Ancient humans personified the dawn of spring as a goddess. She was Eostre, the goddess of spring, a fertility goddess, and a goddess of crops. 

As fertility, new life, and rebirth are associated with the Eostre festival celebrated in April, we understand why eggs and bunnies were used as symbols. Eggs are symbols of life and fertility while bunnies reproduce like, well, bunnies! Now you understand why eggs and bunnies became Easter eggs and Easter Bunnies. Another interesting fact is that the term Estrogen, the female fertility hormone was named after goddess Eostre. 

Further researching the history of Easter and the pagan spring festival honouring Eostre, we found out that using eggs and bunnies during ancient spring festivals in Pagan Europe was a common cultural practice. Some sources say that in ancient Ukraine, Pysanky eggs were used to honour the divine child of Eostre and the Sun God. It is said that this practice was in use until Christianity was introduced to Ukraine. 

Another pagan folklore says that Eostre and the Sun God had a union and thus, after nine months during Yule or the Winter solstice, she gave birth to a divine child, which perhaps later overlapped with the birthdate of Jesus Christ. Some historians suggest that the birth date of the God Mithra (a sun god) was 25 December. 

Eostre: A Spring Goddess and a goddess of fertility 

This pagan goddess has an interesting link with a Proto-Indo-European goddess and a later Rigvedic goddess. These links and similarities suggest inter-cultural connections in the ancient world. The Proto-Indo-European goddess *H2éwsōs or *Haéusōs is a Dawn Goddess that has striking similarities with the Rigvedic Dawn Goddess Ushas. The term H2éwsōs or *Haéusōs means ‘to shine, glowing in red and flame’, which are attributes of dawn and the Eastern sky in the morning. 

In some ancient cultures, she is also depicted as the daughter of the Sun God. Meanwhile, some scholars suggest that she was a sun goddess, which is much older than the Sun God cult, and later was degraded to the level of the daughter of a male god. However, this hypothesis needs more research. 

Easter Eggs

One of the most enduring symbols associated with Eostre is the egg, which has long been a powerful emblem of fertility and renewal in many cultures around the world. Eggs are traditionally dyed and decorated in vibrant colours to celebrate the arrival of spring and the promise of new beginnings.

 In Christian belief, Easter eggs represent the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of new life. The egg, with its hard shell that conceals new life within, serves as a powerful metaphor for the tomb from which Jesus emerged on Easter Sunday.

The custom of decorating eggs predates Christianity and was practiced by ancient civilisations as a way to honour the renewal of life after the long winter months. Today, Easter eggs are a central feature of Easter celebrations, particularly in Western cultures. Families gather to dye and decorate eggs together, using a variety of techniques and materials to create intricate designs and patterns. These eggs are often hidden for children to find during Easter egg hunts, a beloved tradition that brings joy and excitement to the holiday festivities.

Whether viewed as symbols of religious faith, the arrival of spring, or simply a fun and festive tradition, Easter eggs continue to hold a special place in the hearts of people around the world.

Easter Bunny

Similarly, the hare or rabbit is another symbol closely linked to Eostre and the spring season. In Germanic folklore, hares/rabbits were often associated with fertility and abundance, due to their prolific breeding habits. The Easter Bunny, a beloved figure in modern Easter celebrations, is thought to be a descendant of Eostre’s sacred hare, symbolising the joy and abundance of the spring season.

The origins of the Easter Bunny can be traced back to ancient pagan festivals in Europe celebrating the arrival of spring and the renewal of life. Rabbits and hares were seen as symbols of fertility and abundance, making them natural choices to represent the spirit of spring.

Over time, the Easter Bunny became associated with the Christian holiday of Easter, where it took on new meanings and symbolism. In Christian tradition, the Easter Bunny is often portrayed as a messenger of hope and joy, bringing gifts and treats to children in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Today, the Easter Bunny is a beloved and enduring symbol of Easter, particularly in Western cultures where it is closely associated with the custom of Easter egg hunts. Children eagerly anticipate the arrival of the Easter Bunny, who is believed to hide eggs and other goodies for them to find on Easter morning, adding to the joy and excitement of the holiday festivities.

“I still believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and true love. Don’t even try to tell me different.”

—Dolly Parton

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