Lying on the sofa, semi comatose with an embarrassingly glutinous amount of empty foil paper around me, I had that all too familiar “why??” moment.
Although death by chocolate would be an embarrassingly weak, if delicious, way to go, I was also lying there wondering why I did it. Not over indulge, but wilfully receive a large amount of chocolate in bright coloured eggs and golden bunnies, on an extra long public holiday, for something that supposedly happened a couple of thousand years ago. It all seems a little bit confused to me but no one seems to act so. We get excited for the superficial aspects of a religious holiday that seem more appropriate for a children’s book than reality.
So it got me thinking. How did we get to this point? How did ‘brand Easter’ come about?
Some traditions involve parents telling their children that eggs and other treats such as chocolate eggs or rabbits have been delivered by the Easter Bunny in an Easter basket, which children find waiting for them when they wake up. The more religious ‘traditionalists’ go to church on the Sunday to celebrate Easter Mass. Who’s doing it right?
The Easter name and date
Although the Christian festival of Easter celebrates the death of Jesus on a cross and, especially, his resurrection, most people, including Christians, don’t realise that Easter is fundamentally founded in ‘pagan’ influences with the celebration of spring.
It took over 300 years before Christians established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the March Equinox at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. The pagan Easter, however, was celebrated long before Christianity (although the festival went by many names).
In the 8th century, Christian scholar Bede claimed in his book, De temporum ratione, (The Reckoning of Time) that Easter derived from the Saxon Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre). The ancient Saxons in Northern Europe worshiped the Goddess Oestre at the time of the Spring Equinox. The Goddess Easter represents the sunrise, spring-time and fertility; the renewal of life.
"Oester" was goddess of spring with all its fertility-symbols and fertility-rites, which included eggs and rabbits; the rabbit was the consort of the goddess and has remained so ever since.
In the ancient world, the rabbit has long been a symbol of fertility. The rabbit is known for its reproductive powers; even today, we talk of couples who have many children as "multiplying like rabbits". The “lucky rabbit's foot” also goes back to this ancient religion. The rabbit’s foot, being a phallic symbol with supposed magical powers, related to reproduction.
Although rabbits were the most potent symbol of fertility, the egg was viewed as the start of all life, and was often thought to have magical powers. Many ancient cultures, including Ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Romans used eggs during their spring festivals.
As far as the bible goes, there were no eggs in the Last Supper. In Christian times the egg had bestowed upon it a Christian interpretation, becoming a symbol of the rock tomb out of which Christ emerged to the new life of His resurrection.
There are numerous weaker references to where Easter Eggs originated from in a Christian sense but again it’s widely accepted that it was an attempt to adapt pagan festivals into Christianity to make the concept of Christianity more agreeable to the ancient cultures that worshipped other gods.
Decorating the eggs
The decoration of the eggs has a bit of a convoluted history. In the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, Easter eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ, but different cultures have developed their own ways of decorating Easter eggs. Crimson eggs, to honor the blood of Christ, are exchanged in Greece but in parts of Germany and Austria green eggs are used on Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday). Slavic peoples decorate their eggs in special patterns of gold and silver. Austrian artists design patterns by fastening ferns and tiny plants around the eggs, which are then boiled. The plants are then removed revealing a striking white pattern. The Poles and Ukrainians decorate eggs with simple designs and colors.
The most famous decorated Easter eggs were those made by the well-known goldsmith, Peter Carl Faberge. In 1883 the Russian Czar, Alexander, commissioned Faberge to make a special Easter gift for his wife, the Empress Marie. The first Faberge egg was an egg within an egg. It had an outside shell of platinum and enameled white which opened to reveal a smaller gold egg. The smaller egg, in turn, opened to display a golden chicken and a jeweled replica of the Imperial crown. This special Faberge egg so delighted the Czarina that the Czar promptly ordered the Faberge firm to design further eggs to be delivered every Easter.
The inclusion of chocolate into the Easter experience is a fairly modern, and welcome, aspect.
The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in Europe in the early 19th Century. John Cadbury made his first 'French eating Chocolate' in 1842 but it was not until 1875 that the first Cadbury Easter Eggs were made, primarily due to the required technology being made to create the moulds. Eggs were a fundamental part of the Easter experience and the genius of Cadbury saw a unique opportunity here to sell a large volume of the fantastic new product. The decorative nature of the eggs and foil shortly followed to tie in with the European trends.
One of the multitude of random Easter traditions i stumbled across comes and thought to include comes from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. A tradition of spanking or whipping is carried out on Easter Monday where in the morning, men spank women with a special handmade whip. The whip is made from willow rods and is usually from half a meter to two meters long and decorated with coloured ribbons at the end. The spanking is not painful or intended to cause suffering. A legend says that women should be spanked with a whip in order to keep their health and beauty during the whole next year. I’m guessing the legend was devised by a man.
So Easter is another gloriously confused mix of symbolism and traditions, much like Christmas. But like Christmas it is one of those cherished holidays which are fun because they make no sense but they just work. They put smiles on faces, bring friends and families together, and, more than likely, cause a few merry sugar comas like mine.