Easter is a worldwide tradition involving many customs that people believe to be Christian. How did rabbits, eggs and hot cross buns become associated with Christ’s Resurrection? As with almost all “Christian” holidays, Easter has a secular side as well.
The origins of Easter are rooted in European traditions. The name Easter comes from a pagan figure called Eastre (or Eostre) who was celebrated as the goddess of spring by the Saxons of Northern Europe. A festival called Eastre was held during the spring equinox by these people to honor her. The goddess Eastre’s earthly symbol was the rabbit, which was also known as a symbol of fertility. So who is Eastre? And what does she have to do with bunnies?
Eastre was a playful goddess whose reign over the earth began in the spring when the Sun King journeyed across the sky in his chariot, bringing the end of winter. Eostre came down to earth then, appearing as a beautiful maiden with a basket of bright colorful eggs. Eastre’s magical companion was a rabbit who accompanied her as she brought new life to dying plants and flowers by hiding the eggs in the fields. Furthermore, the German mythologist Jacob Grimm affirmed her existence based on folklore and the traditional German Easter festival Ostarun. According to legend, she is associated with Spring, as well as with the sunrise. Some of the traditional lore that has been passed down relates the story of Eastre, who saved a bird whose wings were frozen from the harsh winter by turning it into a hare.
The rabbit is well known as a sexual symbol of fertility. In various parts of the world, religions which developed from Babel also associate the rabbit with periodicity, both human and lunar. The Mother Goddess Eastre (Easter) is associated with the Moon. And the annual Spring time fertility rituals are associated worship of the Mother Goddess.
The custom of eating hot cross buns is also said to have Pagan origins. The Saxons ate buns that were marked with a cross in honor of Eastre. The ancient Greeks also consumed these types of buns in their celebrations of Artemis, Goddess of the hunt (known as Diana to the Romans). And the Egyptians ate a similar cake in their worship of the Goddess Isis.
In many South American traditions, the world was created from an egg. A Latin proverb states Omne vivum ex ovo, or “All life comes from an egg.” It’s easy to see that the egg is important to many different cultures around the world. In Germany and other countries eggs used for cooking where not broken, but the contents were removed by piercing the end of each egg with a needle and blowing the contents into a bowl. The hollow eggs were dyed and hung from shrubs and trees during the Easter Week. The Armenians would decorate hollow eggs with pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other religious designs.
The Ukraine has perhaps the most famous Easter eggs, the fabulously decorated pysanky. In Poland, Easter eggs are traditionally blessed by a priest before being shared by family and friends. Orthodox Christians dye eggs red, presumably in relation to the blood of the risen Christ. German settlers in America are also said to have brought over the tradition of a bunny named “Oschter Haws” who visited houses the night before Easter and left colored eggs for the children. The Easter eggs were painted different colors to represent the colors of spring.
I grew up celebrating both of them but also knowing what the real meaning behind them is, too. Some of my most vivid childhood memories have to do with Cascarones (A cascaron is the Spanish word for eggshell). We use to make them ourselves as kids. I got such joy from smashing a Cascaron on someone’s head. A Cascarone is a chicken egg that has been cracked at one end, emptied, and washed out. Next, the eggshell is brightly painted or dyed, and later filled with confetti. A piece of colored tissue paper is glued over the hole. Then, we’ll sneak up on someone and smash a Cascaron on his head to bring him good luck!
Carlotta, the wife of Emperor Maximillian, was so fascinated by the eggs that she brought them to Mexico during her husband’s rule in the mid 1800’s. Then spread throughout Central America and South America.
So old traditional associations between spring, hares and eggs don’t get forgotten with the coming of Christianity. In much the same way that Christian churches were often built on the sites of former Pagan temples, it seems that Christian festivals were overlaid upon older celebrations.
Hope you have a happy Eostre ahead! 😉