Easter as a Pagan Tradition
By Robert Vaux,
Christians celebrate Easter as the day Jesus Christ rose from the dead following his crucifixion. But many other Easter traditions–eggs, rabbits, chicks and flowers–stem from older pagan traditions. Those themes tie in to Christian concepts quite readily, which explains why Easter continues to carry pagan trappings as well as Christian ones.
The name “Easter” derives from Oestre, a pagan goddess worshipped by the ancient Saxons. She was the goddess of spring and fertility, responsible for the creation of new life. The Saxons thus worshipped her in the early spring, when new plants bloomed and babies were born. Her totem animal was the rabbit, a creature known to reproduce in copious amounts.
The Easter Bunny
The Easter Bunny stems from a myth about Oestre, in which she finds a flightless bird in the snow and transforms him into a hare so that he can run and hide from hunters. The hare eventually angers Oestre and she banishes him to the skies–where he appears at the constellation Lepus. Once each year, she allows him to return to Earth and distribute eggs to children.
Pagan celebrations surrounding Easter were joyful and bright, shaking off the dark shackles of winter and embracing new life. The bright, pastel colors of Easter likely stem from these celebrations, intended to match green plants and the colors of the flowers in bloom. Feasting was a part of pagan Easter traditions as well; a hearty meal following a end-of-winter fast to purge the toxins of heavy winter meals (later echoed in the Christian tradition of Lent). The feasts would consist of the last of the cured meats slaughtered and prepared the previous fall, which may have easily included ham.
Eggs are a symbol of new life and fertility, as are newborn chicks. Midwives in pagan Europe would suspend an egg over a pregnant woman’s belly as a means of determining the sex of the unborn child. People would give eggs as gifts, symbolizing abundance and prosperity, and while the wealthy could wrap eggs in gold leaf or similar signs of wealth, peasants couldn’t afford such extravagance. Instead, they dyed the eggs by boiling them in plant petals, giving them a brightly colored appearance.
When Christianity arrived in Northern Europe, it couldn’t simply impose its own traditions onto the existing pagan culture. Instead, it adopted existing traditions as a way of integrating into the culture. The story of Christ’s rebirth closely matches pagan rituals of spring, with Jesus rising from the dead and restoring humanity’s soul after the darkness and pain of the crucifixion. Easter festivals thus made a close fit for the story. The date of Easer is set as the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox–and thus dictated by astronomical phenomenon which also governed the pagan calendar. So too do Easter sunrise services in Christian churches match pagan sun rituals, designed to celebrate the return of warmth and light to the world.