A HISTORY OF EASTER and the EASTER EGG
Delve into the history and origins of the Christian festival of Easter and you come up with a few surprises. For instance, Easter eggs do not owe their origins to Christianity and originally the festival of Easter itself had nothing to do with Christianity either. A closer look at the history of both Easter and the Easter Egg reveals a much earlier association with pagan ritual and in particular, the pagan rites of spring, dating back into pre history.
For us, the ancient rites celebrating the Spring Equinox are most obviously associated with the mysterious Druids and places like Stone Henge, but most ancient races around the world had similar spring festivals to celebrate the rebirth of the year. The Egg, as a symbol of fertility and re-birth, has been associated with these rites from the earliest times.
The Christian Festival Of Easter
In fact, the festival of Easter is a classic example of the early Christian church adapting an existing pagan ritual to suit their own purposes. The Saxon spring festival of Eostre, was named for their goddess of dawn, and when they came to Britain in about the 5th century AD, the festival came with them along with re-birth and fertility rituals involving eggs, chicks and rabbits. When the Saxons converted to Christianity and started to celebrate the death and the resurrection of Christ, it coincided with Eostre, so that's what the early church called the celebration, Eostre or Easter in modern English.
The actual date that Easter falls on every year is governed by a fairly complex calculation related to the Spring Equinox. The actual formula is: The first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox is Easter Sunday or Easter Day. This formula was set by Egyptian astronomers in Alexandra in 235ad, and calculated using the same method as the Jews have traditionally used to calculate the feast of the Passover, which occurred at about the same time as the crucifixion.
As well as adopting the festival of Eostre, the Egg, representing fertility and re-birth in pagan times, was also adopted as part of the Christian Easter festival and it came to represent the 'resurrection' or re-birth of Christ after the crucifixion and some believe it is a symbol of the the stone blocking the Sepulchre being 'rolled' away.
In the UK and Europe, the earliest Easter eggs were painted and decorated hen, duck or goose eggs, a practice still carried on in parts of the world today. As time went by, artificial eggs were made and by the end of the 17th century, manufactured eggs were available for purchase at Easter, for giving as Easter gifts and presents.
Easter eggs continued to evolve through the 18th and into the 19th Century, with hollow cardboard Easter eggs filled with Easter gifts and sumptuously decorated, culminating with the fabulous Faberge Eggs. Encrusted with jewels, they were made for the Czar's of Russia by Carl Faberge, a French jeweller. Surely these were the 'ultimate' Easter gift, to buy even a small one now would make you poorer by several millions of pounds.
The Chocolate Easter Egg
It was at about this time (early 1800's) that the first chocolate Easter egg appeared in Germany and France and soon spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. The first chocolate eggs were solid soon followed by hollow eggs. Although making hollow eggs at that time was no mean feat, because the easily worked chocolate we use today didn't exist then, they had to use a paste made from ground roasted Cacao beans.
By the turn of the 19th Century, the discovery of the modern chocolate making process and improved mass manufacturing methods meant that the Chocolate Easter Egg was fast becoming the Easter Gift of choice in the UK and parts of Europe, and by the 1960's it was well established worldwide.
Have you ever wondered where the celebration of the Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ acquired its unusual name and odd symbols of colored eggs and rabbits?
The answer lies in the ingenious way that the Christian church absorbed Pagan practices. After discovering that people were more reluctant to give up their holidays and festivals than their gods, they simply incorporated Pagan practices into Christian festivals. As recounted by the Venerable Bede, an early Christian writer, clever clerics copied Pagan practices and by doing so, made Christianity more palatable to pagan folk reluctant to give up their festivals for somber Christian practices.
In second century Europe, the predominate spring festival was a raucous Saxon fertility celebration in honor of the Saxon Goddess Eastre (Ostara), whose sacred animal was a hare.
The colored eggs associated with the bunny are of another, even more ancient origin. The eggs associated with this and other Vernal festivals have been symbols of rebirth and fertility for so long the precise roots of the tradition are unknown, and may date to the beginning of human civilization. Ancient Romans and Greeks used eggs as symbols of fertility, rebirth, and abundance- eggs were solar symbols, and figured in the festivals of numerous resurrected gods.
Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common- it was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance. The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the hare together represent the god and the goddess, respectively.
Moving forward fifteen hundred years, we find ourselves in Germany, where children await the arrival of Oschter Haws, a rabbit who will lay colored eggs in nests to the delight of children who discover them Easter morning. It was this German tradition that popularized the 'Easter bunny' in America, when introduced into the American cultural fabric by German settlers in Pennsylvania.
Many modern practitioners of Neo-pagan and earth-based religions have embraced these symbols as part of their religious practice, identifying with the life-affirming aspects of the spring holiday. (The Neopagan holiday of Ostara is descended from the Saxon festival.) Ironically, some Christian groups have used the presence of these symbols to denounce the celebration of the Easter holiday, and many churches have recently abandoned the Pagan moniker with more Christian oriented titles like 'Resurrection Sunday.'
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