The most joyous of Christian festivals, and one of the first celebrated by the Christians, commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. The English word Easter corresponding to the German “Oster,” reveals the association of many Easter customs with those of the Teutonic tribes of central Europe. When Christianity reached these people it incorporated many of their “heathen” rites (of the heath) into the great Christian feast day. Easter month, corresponding to our April, was dedicated to Eostre, or Ostara, goddess of the spring. There was in common the time of spring and the triumph of life over death.
The practice of eating eggs on Easter Sunday and giving them as gifts to friends and children probably arose because, in the earlier days of the church, eggs were forbidden food during Lent (the 40 days before Easter) and were therefore always eaten on Easter Sunday. But the custom of coloring eggs goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who practiced this custom during their spring festival.
The Easter hare, or bunny, comes from antiquity as well. The hare is associated with the moon in the legends of ancient Egypt. It belongs to the night when it comes out to feed. It is born with its eyes opened and, like the moon, is “the open-eyed watcher of the skies.” Through the fact that the Egyptian word for hare, “un,” means also “open” and “period,” the hare became associated with the idea of periodicity, both lunar and human, and so became a symbol of fertility and of the renewal of life. As such, the hare became linked with the Easter, or paschal eggs. In the U.S. the Easter rabbit is fabled to lay the eggs in the nests prepared for it or to hide them for the children to find. Chocolate bunnies became popular in the US in the 19th century.
Although Easter — the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus — was celebrated very early in the church, its common date was not established Empire wide until A.D. 325 when the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, where it was decided that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, to be fixed each year at Alexandria, then the center of astronomical science. The date is an approximation, and may differ from year to year. This means that its date may vary as much as 35 days!
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian