By Dr. Jock Murray and Janet Murray
For The Advocate
One of the loveliest moments of spring is the moment we find the first snow drop pushing up through the snow, the first crocus finding its way through the dead grass. Winter can be lovely, but we need to know that the days will grow longer, that what appears dead will rise again. It was natural for the Christian Church to pair this return to life with the feast of the Resurrection, but what’s with the bunnies and eggs?
Most children connect Easter with the Easter Bunny, perhaps bringing chocolate eggs and small gifts. In our neighbourhood there was always an Easter egg hunt with small children (and sometime bigger ones) going up and down streets searching for chocolate eggs, hidden by Easter Bunny. When we were young, there were often hen’s eggs hard boiled and coloured — I was fascinated that an egg boiled with red cabbage became a blue egg.
For most of us however, Easter meant spring — the end of wearing boots and fuzzy gloves and the beginning of playing marbles and skipping rope, and as we got older, we watched for the rebirth that spring brought to the world — the first robin, the first crocus, the grass turning green, new leaves on the trees.
Unlike Christmas, Easter is celebrated on a different day each year, a movable feast. In the early Christian centuries, the date to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus was celebrated on different dates. Emperor Constantine, a supporter of Christianity, held a meeting of Christian bishops to resolve certain matters and one was to decide that Easter would be the date to celebrate the resurrection. At that meeting it was decided it would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon date, based on mathematical calculations, that falls on or after March 21. If the full moon is on a Sunday, Easter is celebrated on the following Sunday. If you find this confusing, you’re not alone, and there have been many proposed alternate dates suggested over the years.
Which brings us to the next question… why the term Easter? Why not Resurrection Day, as has been suggested? And where do the bunnies and chocolate eggs come from? It seems that this very Christian feast has what some call pagan roots, because they celebrate the spring or vernal equinox. Celebrating the beginning of spring is one of the oldest celebrations in human history, recognizing the importance of the rebirth of the earth, just as cultures of the past celebrated the return of the light in December. The vernal equinox also celebrates the fertility of the earth. It is the celebration of life over death. Each group had their own god or goddess and for the Anglo-Saxons it was the goddess Eostre, who probably also gave her name to the female hormone estrogen.
The Venerable Bede, a monk who lived and wrote in the late seventh and early eighth century, wrote that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus in Eosturmonath, or the month of Eostre, and the term was continued as Easter for the time of the celebration. Her feast day was held on the first full moon following the spring equinox. Many of the symbols of birth, rebirth and fertility of that spring period also continued to be associated with the feast of Easter, as eggs and hares and rabbits were symbols of fertility. Similar goddesses were celebrated in other cultures — Aphrodite in Cyprus, Ishtar in Assyria for instance. All of these goddesses were celebrated in the spring.
In the Christian tradition, Easter is the most important celebration, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion. It begins on Ash Wednesday, the first of 40 days of penitence we call Lent. For many it begins on the day before Ash Wednesday, called Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, when all the fat in the household is used up on pancakes.
In more recent centuries public celebrations of Easter were felt to be out of keeping with the solemnness of the event and the early Protestants coming to North America centred the event around family and church services. The German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries brought the tradition of the Easter hare, which later became the Easter rabbit, an animal more docile with children. Decorating Easter eggs also became part of the Easter celebrations.
As the feast became more commercialized, the symbol of Easter became the chocolate Easter egg. France and Germany took the lead in the production of chocolate eggs in the early 19th century. The first were solid chocolate. John Cadbury made his first Cadbury Easter eggs around 1875. The process was slow, until a method was found to make the chocolate flow easily into moulds. The earliest chocolate eggs were made of dark chocolate (so they really were good for you!). The earliest eggs were plain, but later they were decorated with chocolate piping and marzipan flowers.
Eggs have long been a symbol of rebirth, and were often painted with bright colours to celebrate the bright colours of spring. The most beautiful (and non-edible) eggs were by Faberge in Russia. The first was made in 1833 as an Easter gift for the Empress Marie of Russia from her husband Tsar Alexander. It had a small gold egg in an outside shell made of enamel and platinum. Decorated Ukrainian eggs, called pysankas (from the word pysaty — to write), are famous for their beautiful designs by a wax-resist method. They are not painted, but written on with beeswax. To give a pysanka is to give a symbolic gift of life.
The Christian celebration of Easter tended away from the things that were connected with symbols of fertility because of their pagan roots, but there is evidence of egg rolling, said to be symbolic of the rolling away of the tomb of Christ. And the lighting of the paschal candle is said to represent the bonfires lighted by the followers of Eostre to welcome the sun god.
Following a year ravaged by COVID-19 we all ready for a reawakening. Happy Easter!
Dr. T. Jock Murray is a graduate of Pictou Academy and former Dean of Medicine at Dalhousie University. Janet Murray is a graduate of Mount Saint Vincent, majoring in philosophy and a diploma in journalism. She is the former Chair of the Board of Governors of Mount Saint Vincent University.