Like so many Christian traditions, the Easter celebrations derive from ancient pagan festivals.
Jill Glenn looks at the history of Easter, and finds out why it is – literally – a moveable feast.
It is curious, is it not, that the date of Christmas should be fixed, while the date of Easter – arguably the greatest of all the many festivals of the Christian calendar – should change from year to year. Most of us know that it bears some relationship to the Spring Equinox, but the intricacies often pass us by. In fact, Easter is fixed, according to the Book of Common Prayer, on the first Sunday after the full moon which happens upon or next after the twenty-first day of March, and if the full moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter Day is the Sunday after. As a result, Easter may fall as early as 22 March – although it hasn’t, in fact, been that early since 1818, and will not be again until 2285 – or as late as 25 April, most recently in 1943, and next in 2038.
The idea that Easter should be on the same date each year has raised its head from time to time. Life would be much easier for schools (fixed term lengths), families and businesses, and frustrating conversations along the lines of ‘Is Easter early this year…’ would be a thing of the past.
As it happens, the necessary legislation to regulate the date of Easter already exists. The Easter Act 1928 passed through Parliament, and was given the Royal Assent – but an Order in Council to implement it has never been issued. It may never happen. A question on this topic in the House of Lords four years ago, produced the following answer: ‘We have no plans to amend the Easter Act 1928. It remains on the statute book but the Act requires that before a draft order is laid before Parliament 'regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body'. At this time, the Churches have not expressed a desire or willingness to move to a fixed Easter.’ So that’s that, then. We’ll have to rely on counting on our fingers or implementing the complex algorithms currently used.
The Equinoctial rule was fixed nearly 1700 years ago, at the Council of Nicea in 325AD, to separate the date from Passover, the festival used by the disciples and the early Jewish converts to mark the occasion. In many European languages the word for Easter still betrays its origins in the Hebrew Pesach: the Dutch have Paach, the French Pâques, the Italians Pasqua, and the Welsh Pasg. English did not adopt (or adapt) the Hebrew, and Easter probably derives from Eostre, the Teutonic goddess of Spring and Dawn. Eostre is reputed to have opened the gates of Valhalla to the slain sun god, Baldur, thus bringing light to man.
Many of the customs we now associate with Easter also have their origins in early pre-Christian rites and rituals, long since overlaid with a token Christian veneer. The Spring Festival custom of climbing a hill at sunrise and lighting a fire to welcome the sun’s power to deliver new life, for example, was modified into an Easter Sunday dawn expedition to celebrate the resurrection with a short religious service. Similarly the pagan tradition of extinguishing the year-old fire and dancing in the embers was absorbed into Church symbolism, becoming a metaphor for the darkness of Calvary and Christ’s grave, while the laying of the new fire represented the resurrection. The old ceremony of burning the Easter man, or burning the Judas, evolved from the ancient fire customs.
The Easter Bunny was, and remains, unashamedly pagan. In fact, it was a hare, rather than a rabbit, that laid the original Easter Egg (of which more later) and it was the hare that was both Eostre’s symbol and the animal sacrificed to her. In Hallaton, Leicestershire, there is still a Hare Pie Scramble, which takes place on Easter Monday – a boisterous and rather unlikely affair that may also have its origins in the primitive Spring Festival and its connections with the sacred hare.
It is the egg, however, that is the most universal symbol of Easter. Today the Easter Egg has come to mean a lavish chocolate concoction, elaborately packaged and filled with more luxury chocolate or self-assembly carboard models, completely removed from the simple, apparently lifeless object that contains the source of new life. Eggs, already the symbol of reawakening, were swiftly adopted by early Christians to denote the resurrection. In the Middle Ages, huge quantities were collected as an Easter tithe before being ceremonially blessed and distributed as holy gifts. Such practices were discontinued after the Reformation, but the association of eggs – and thus chicks – with Easter remains.
The most well-known is the hunt: hard-boiled eggs, often dyed with bright colours and decorated, are hidden about the garden for children to find. It remains popular today, but, sadly, even such simple traditions are not beyond the reach of commerce: I saw an Easter Egg Hunt Kit (!) for sale last week. In some places eggs are raced downhill, the winner being the owner of the egg which either rolls furthest or survives the most attempts.
The list of Easter superstitions is almost endless – wearing new clothes or bonnets for an Easter parade to bring good fortune; spring cleaning the house (linked to ancient purification rites); praying for fine weather because rain on Easter Sunday means rain for seven Sundays afterwards.
You may not feel as though your daily life is rooted in history, but it’s fair to say that, whatever you’re doing this weekend, some of your plans will have their origins in habits that go back well over 2,000 years…