HISTORY OF EASTER
The most joyous of Christian festivals and one of the first celebrated by Christians across the Roman Empire commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is set on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox.
Meaning of the word Easter
There are several theories about where we got the word Easter.
The first is that when Christianity reached the Teutonic peoples, it incorporated many of their heathen (“of the heath”) rites into the great Christian feast day, according to the Venerable Bede. He was a monk who wrote the first history of Christianity in England. Easter month corresponds to April. Bede suggested that it had been dedicated to Eostre, or Ostara, the Teutonic goddess of Spring and fertility.
However, modern scholars have not been unable to find any references to the goddess Bede mentioned anywhere else in historical literature. Other possibilities for the word’s meaning come from the Norse eostur, eastur, or ostara, which meant “the season of the growing sun” or “the season of new birth.” We get the word east from the same root.
Another theory is that the word’s origin is Christian rather than “heathen.” Stay with me on this one:
White Week in Latin is hebdomada alba. It was common for those baptized on Easter to wear “white robes” the following Sunday, dominica in albis. The Latin alba means both white and dawn. Perhaps those speaking Old High German mistook their translation for dawn “ostarun” instead of the plural for white. Ostarun led to the German Ostern, which led to our English Easter.
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.
Edward I, aka “Longshanks” of England in 1290, bought 450 eggs to be covered either in gold leaf or colored and then distributed to the “royal entourage” during Easter that year. The practice is mentioned again in the 16th century when the Pope sent Henry VIII of England an egg he’d enclosed in a silver case, known as “eggsilver,” as a seasonal present. This was when Henry was still in the good graces of the Roman church.
In 2023, with the price of eggs up over 55% from last year due to the avian influenza outbreak a year ago and consumers looking for alternative protein sources, the idea of painting and dyeing potatoes started circulating two months ago as social media memes with #easterpotatoes and @PotatoGoodness.
My advice: hide them, but don’t bury them.
The Easter hare, or “bunny,” also comes from antiquity. 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 open, unlike the rabbit. Like the moon, it is “the open-eyed watcher of the skies.” The hare became associated with the idea of lunar and human periodicity. Thus it became a symbol of fertility and the renewal of life. The hare became linked with the Easter, or paschal eggs.
In the early days of the folklore, the Easter Bunny carried red eggs, symbolizing the blood of Jesus. The Easter bunny likely came to America in the 1700s with German immigrants to Pennsylvania, where their fabled egg-laying Osterhase could lay their colored eggs in nests that children made for them. Both chocolate bunnies and eggs became popular across the U.S. in the 19th century, with baskets replacing nests. Easter remains the second best-selling candy holiday in America, following Halloween.
A more recent Easter tradition is the Easter lily. It starts as a bulb and takes about three years to bloom. It has six petals but also a unique trumpet. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting shows the Angel Gabriel handing the Virgin Mary a lily while informing her she would conceive and bear a son named Jesus. The Venerable Bede compared the Virgin Mary to a white lily.
The flower Lilium longiflorum is native to the Ryukyu Islands in the south of Japan. It was introduced to England in 1819 and the U.S. in 1880, making its way to Bermuda, but a virus wiped out the Bermuda lily strain. The market was again centered primarily in Japan, but this stopped abruptly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. However, a suitcase full of the bulbs had been transported to Oregon by the soldier Louis Houghton. Farmers and florists from Oregon popularized them into Northern California.
Date of Easter
Although Easter was celebrated very early in the church, its recurring date was not agreed upon Empire-wide until A.D. 325, when the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the ecumenical Council of Nicaea, including several hundred church leaders from throughout the Roman Empire, including the Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas.
Among other issues decided at the Council, the Emperor wanted Easter not to be tied to Passover in the Jewish lunar calendar month of Nisan but to be computed independently on a single Sunday, observed Empire-wide, using calculations practiced for some time in both Rome and Alexandria, even though they had different methods for calculating the Spring equinox.
Though it was not immediately adopted everywhere, eventually, it was observed on
the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox.
It would be fixed yearly at Alexandria, Egypt, then the center of astronomical science. The date is an approximation and may differ from year to year.
This means Easter’s date may vary as much as 35 days!
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian