What Do a Rabbit, Colored Eggs and Candy Have to Do With Jesus? The History of Easter Revealed

Some old guy makes up a weird story about a goddess who never existed who turns a bird into a rabbit that lays colored eggs; and it morphs into a mega-watt holiday celebrated the modern world over.
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Ever stopped to wonder how bunnies, eggs and scavenger hunts are related to Easter's religious celebration of Jesus dying on the cross and rising again? Strange bedfellows they are. I never had any idea as a kid. No one seemed to question the whole odd mix: why would a rabbit have a basket of eggs in the first place, and how that tied in to crucifixion and resurrection was another matter. Let's explore some Easter myths while popping a few chocolate Cadbury treats, shall we?

I grew up in a vaguely Christian family, and today am sort of a floating generalist. Our kids celebrate Jewish and Christian holidays, and are exposed to Buddhism, Hinduism and Native American practices. God has many names to us and we are not members of a church.

It seems I am not alone in that vague religious category. According to John Meacham- in his Newsweek article, "The Decline of Christian America" :

"the percentage of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith has doubled in recent years, to 16 percent; in terms of voting, this group grew from 5 percent in 1988 to 12 percent in 2008--roughly the same percentage of the electorate as African-Americans. (Seventy-five percent of unaffiliated voters chose Barack Obama, a Christian.) Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million. (That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.)"

This article was the subject of a hot debate on Hardball with Christopher Hitchens and Kenneth Blackwell and featured on Friday at the Huff Po. For me, the depth of our faith is a highly personal matter, and can change in its form and intensity as life takes its often bumpy course. Yet, what about the depth and quality of our holidays? So many have become empty- devoid of meaning and filled with consumerism.

In graduate school I studied the historical progression of religion from the first Sumerian myths over 3,000 years ago, and explored the impact on our collective psyche. It is interesting to note many Christian holidays blend together with more ancient or "pagan" holidays celebrated for thousands of years prior. Before Moses was around to have the first Seder, or Jesus walked the Earth, we celebrated the rites of Spring at this time of year, with the perfect balance of light and darkness, called the Vernal Equinox.

I love learning about these ancient celebrations, and exposing them to my children. They do not interfere with any specific religious faith, but add a broader context and history to the occasion. The Vernal Equinox is on March 21st and on that day, there is an equal amount of light and darkness.
As an adult, thinking about balance during the Spring is highly appealing to me. A time to quiet down, toss out what is weighing me down and center myself for the rising energy of Spring. How motivating to know from that day forward there will be a little more light outside than the day before. Regardless of your faith, this is a practice of worthy note.

It turns out the celebrations of modern Easter's egg-toting-rabbit evolves from a mythic German goddess named Ostara, (Oestre / Eastre) who was the Germanic Goddess of Springtime. According to the Encycolopedia Mythica:

"In ancient Anglo-Saxon myth, Ostara is the personification of the rising sun. In that capacity she is associated with the spring and is considered to be a fertility goddess. She is the friend of all children and to amuse then she changed her pet bird into a rabbit. This rabbit brought forth brightly colored eggs, which the goddess gave to the children as gifts. From her name and rites the festival of Easter is derived."

All other European words for "Easter" derive from the Hebrew word "pasah," to pass over, thus reflecting the Christian holiday's Biblical connection with the Jewish Passover. I find it ironic the holiest day in the Christian faith, dedicated to celebrating the Son of God, is named after a goddess.
According to Ostara was very popular with the Anglo-Saxon people, who worshiped her under the name Eostre.

Yet there is something odd about how little there is written about her; the myth only resides in one area, and is recorded to exist for a fairly short period of time. Most Sumerian, Greek and Egyptian figures like Isis, Kali, and Demeter were widely worshiped for thousands of years, and many of the stories had moral components or attributes to emulate. What's the moral element of the Easter bunny? Something about it just doesn't fit with other myths.

Was it all a joke?

Recent research suggests that the Ostara myth was potentially invented during a mischievous moment by the Venerable Bede. This well-known monk mentioned her in connection with the pagan festival Eosturmonath in a book written in 750 A.D. -- but extensive research has failed to find a trace of her prior to that. Talk about the "stickiness factor" of Malcom Gladwell's book The Tipping Point. Imagine: a famous monk makes up a weird story about a goddess who never existed who turns a bird into a rabbit that lays colored eggs; and it morphs into a mega-watt holiday celebrated the modern world over.

Wow. Bet that gets your bonnet in a tizzy. Imagine the irony in making up a goddess myth, which becomes linked with the "greatest story ever told," and simultaneously serves as a mecca of commerce for Hershey's, hat makers and basket weavers. For those who are devoted Christians: does this affect the power of His word and His teachings? No, but come on; it is a pretty darn good story.

A little food for thought this holiday weekend! Whatever you celebrate: Happy Passover, Happy Spring and Happy Easter to everyone. Enjoy the sweet balance you find with your family, friends and the emergence of Light. And please save some of those marshmallow chicks for me!

Love to hear your comments of how you celebrate the coming of Spring, Easter or Passover, and how you find deeper meaning in the holidays. To receive notices of each weekly column, click on 'Become a Fan' above.

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