It’s Easter time, and Easter Bunnies and Easter eggs are everywhere! At school and at home, children dye and paint eggs, hardboiled by mothers or teachers, in preparation for the great feast of Easter. Some prepare “nests,” or baskets, filled with artificial or real grass, in which to place the colored eggs. This custom harks back to a time when people actually believed that rabbits laid eggs, since their burrows were in the ground where ground-dwelling birds like plovers, really did lay eggs.
The night before Easter, fond parents hide chocolate or hardboiled eggs, allegedly hidden by the Easter bunny, round the house or garden. Children hunt for them on Easter morning. These Easter rituals have been going on for thousands of years! Where and when did they begin?
Some trace the origins of the Easter bunny and eggs back to the Pagan Anglo Saxon goddess, Oestre, or Ostara. Ostara was the Germanic goddess of spring. Like most goddesses associated with the Vernal Equinox, and the rising fertility of the Earth as winter retreats, she is a fertility goddess. She was associated with the Moon Hare or rabbit, and with eggs, both symbolic of renewal and regeneration. (Rabbits are notoriously prolific, and the egg is an age-old symbol of birth and resurrection.)
These icons were co-opted by Christianity. Pope Gregory the Great (approx. 540-590 A.D.) ordered his missionaries to incorporate old religious customs wherever possible into Christian rituals, to make new converts feel comfortable. The Pagan feast of Oestre, with its celebration of new life and rebirth, symbolized by her hares and eggs, fit perfectly with the Resurrection of Christ. To this day, the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Easter morning by the cracking of red Easter eggs (dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ) and the greeting “He is risen!” An ancient icon of St. Mary Magdalene, one of Christ’s most ardent followers, shows her holding a red Easter egg bearing the words “Christ is risen,” as well as the bottle of perfume with which she anointed the Master’s feet shortly before his crucifixion.
Royalty brought the lovely peasant custom of the giving of Easter eggs to new, artistic heights. Czar Alexander III of Russia (1845-1894) commissioned golden Faberge eggs as Easter gifts for his wife, Maria Fyodorovna. Ten of these priceless, jeweled Easter eggs are now on display in the Kremlin in Moscow.
The Easter egg that we know and love in the West shows up in other cultures as well. The great Persian festival of spring, called Nowruz, or New Year, celebrated on March 21st, includes painted eggs on the Haft Sin table. There, seven items, symbolic of the coming of spring, all beginning with the letter “S, ” convey the wishes and hopes of each family for the coming year. This custom dates back to the ancient Zoroastrians.
And at the Jewish Passover Seder, celebrated at the end of March, guests eat roasted eggs dipped in salt water, as a reminder of the sacrifice offered in the great Temple of Jerusalem. The egg is part of a plate of six symbolic foods, that relate to the Exodus from Egypt.
The Easter celebrations of the present, then, have a long, distinguished history. What do they have in common?
They are all celebrations of returning spring, of renewal, rebirth, regeneration and hope. Hope for the New Year. Hope for our families. Hope for the world.
In my new Easter illustration, I have taken a look at the beloved celebration from a new perspective. The familiar figures are there: mothers, children, rabbits and eggs. Spring is in the air. Daffodils are up. New life abounds. Fun is the mission of the day.
But this time, we see the festivities through the eyes of the rabbits. If Easter eggs and rabbits are symbols of Easter to us, the happy children and their mothers, masquerading as rabbits, eggs, and Easter chicks, are an infallible sign of the season to the rabbits.
“Must be Easter again,” one whispers, as the children troop past.
Of course! What else could it be?