Strange Easter Questions You May Not Have Thought to Ask

Happy Easter image from 365 Things To Do In Austin

Happy Easter, Cat Flaggers! I hope you are enjoying the candies in your Easter basket. Are you visiting family and having a big old ham feast? Maybe you had an Easter egg hunt?

While Easter is certainly a fun holiday to celebrate, it is also a really strange holiday if you think about it. Why is it that this holiday falls on different days every year? Where did a Christian festival celebrating Jesus’s resurrection get such a weird name? How did it come to be linked to eggs, baskets, and the idea of a magic rabbit? Well, today Cat Flag has the answers for you!

Easter’s migration around the calendar

Calendar image from Madison Metropolitan School District

This year, Easter falls on April 20th. Last year, it was March 31st. Next year, it will be April 5th. Why does this holiday keep changing its date? It’s not like Christmas migrates every year – Santa comes around on December 25th each and every year!

Thank the First Council of Nicaea for this oddity.

Yeah, thanks a lot, guys.

Yeah, thanks a lot, guys.

Our story begins with the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who converted to Christianity and started to make it the official religion of his empire, replacing the polytheistic religion the Romans had practiced for centuries. However, he soon found there was a problem with this plan. Even in the fourth century AD, the Christian church was divided into a variety of competing movements with competing doctrines and beliefs, each accusing the others of heresy. In 325 AD, Constantine called the major Christian leaders from across his empire together to settle these disputes once and for all.

A quick search in the Yellow Pages for churches will tell you how well that plan worked out.

Still, the Council’s decisions laid the foundation for what we might call “modern Christianity”, declaring the Nicene Creed that almost all Christian churches accept today. It was also the Council of Nicaea that set the rules for when we celebrate Easter.

Originally, the celebration of Easter was based on the Jewish calendar, a calendar that is used to determine the dates of important Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and Hanukkah. According to the Bible, the death and resurrection of Jesus took place during Passover. It made sense, then, for Christians to celebrate Easter while Jews celebrated Passover. However, many Christians were unsatisfied with this arrangement, and argued that Christians should break from the Jewish tradition and set their own date.

The Council of Nicaea reached a compromise: they declared that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring. This still keeps Easter celebrations sometime kind-of-around-the-Passover-season-sort-of, but satisfied the demand that the date should be based on Christianity’s own rules. Under these rules, Easter will always fall somewhere between March 22 and April 25.

Of course, in the centuries since that agreement, a new argument over Easter’s correct date has arisen. Back when the Council of Nicaea made its decision, they were using the Julian calendar – a calendar the ancient Romans had used and that was used throughout Europe during the middle ages. Then in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, the calendar we all use today. The reason for the change has to do with leap years and keeping the seasons lining up; you can watch this video for a more detailed explanation.

Naturally, when everyone switched over to the new calendar, they used the new calendar to calculate when to celebrate Easter. Except for the Eastern Orthodox churches, that is. The Eastern Orthodox churches never accepted the new calendar (“Who does the Pope think he is, telling us to change our calendars, anyway?”), so they still use the Julian calendar to calculate when to celebrate Easter. That’s why calendars usually list one date as “Easter” and another as “Orthodox Easter”. Sometimes the two dates line up, but sometimes they don’t.

Because we couldn’t possibly let something be simple, could we?

The name “Easter”

No, it's not named after the island. It's the other way around, guys.

No, it’s not named after the island. It’s the other way around, guys.

Why is it that a day that honors one of the most important beliefs in Christianity has such a strange name? Why isn’t it called something like “Resurrection Day”? For that matter, as mentioned above, the celebration was originally based on Passover. Why isn’t it called “Christian Passover”?

Actually, in other languages, it is. Many languages use a name that derives from the Hebrew for Passover, “Pesach”. Greeks call the day “Pascha”, Spanish-speakers call it “Pascua”, and the Dutch call it “Pasen”. It’s just English that is the oddball.

Not the only thing about English that is weird.

Not the only thing about English that is weird.

The English name actually has nothing to do with Jesus or Passover. It comes from the name of a pre-Christian pagan goddess – Ēostre, goddess of spring and the dawn. She was a deity worshipped by various northern Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxon ancestors of the modern English people. In fact, according to ancient accounts, the Anglo-Saxons spent a whole month celebrating in her honor.

When the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, the celebration of Ēostre just so happened to fall right around the same time as the Christian celebration of Jesus’s resurrection, so they kept the old name for the new holiday – Easter.

Easter eggs, Easter baskets, and the Easter bunny

Easter bunny image from Connecticut Working Moms

Okay, so that explains the name, but how did such an important religious holiday come to be associated with such non-religious myths about magic rabbits who hide decorated eggs and bring baskets full of candy for children? That’s all pretty bizarre, right?

Not quite as bizarre as you might think. Let’s start with Easter eggs. Eggs have been a known symbol of springtime and fertility for thousands of years, with many ancient civilizations from the Egyptians to the Romans making use of eggs in their springtime ceremonies. It was Christianity, though, that made the link between eggs and Easter, albeit by accident. In the Middle Ages, it was forbidden to eat eggs during Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Medieval peasants would hard-boil any eggs their chickens laid during Lent to preserve them, and then would celebrate the coming of Easter by eating the stored-up eggs.

As for that Easter bunny, he traces his origins to German folklore. Originally, he was a Santa-like figure, rewarding well-behaved children and punishing those who misbehaved. Specifically, children were told to make little nests in their hats for the Easter bunny. If they had been good, the bunny would leave them eggs. This tradition was brought to the United States by German settlers and immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the great American melting pot absorbed it.

So, how did those hat-nests transform into baskets? Trick question; the baskets are actually the far older tradition. In the ancient Middle East, when it came time to plant the new crops for the spring, they would put the seedlings in baskets to their local temple and ask for a blessing. The hope was that the gods would give them a bountiful harvest. This tradition was picked up by the ancient Israelites, who in turn gave it to early Christians. In medieval Europe, it was the peasants’ Easter meal that was brought via basket into the local church for a blessing, formally signifying the end of Lent.

In essence, the bunny-eggs-basket combo is just another case of the American melting pot at work, grabbing a little bit of this tradition and that tradition and blending them into a whole new tradition.

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One Response to Strange Easter Questions You May Not Have Thought to Ask

  1. Pingback: The Origins of Our Halloween Traditions | Cat Flag

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