As those of us who honor the old ways know, many of our traditions have been usurped by other religions who go on to claim them as their own. Easter is a colorful example of this.
Although many people assume Easter began as a Christian holiday, it did not. This spring holiday began as, and still is, a very pagan one. While Christians celebrate their god’s resurrection, so do other faiths and traditions that existed for millennia before Christianity was established. From the Egyptian god Osiris to the Greek god Dionysus — among others — a god’s resurrection has always been a fairly common theme. The phoenix – who dies and then rises from its own ashes three days later – may also have influenced the Christian belief that their god died and rose three days later.
Easter itself is named after a pagan goddess who was similarly worshipped for centuries before Christ. Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility (from whom we get the word estrogen) who was believed to usher in spring every year, thereby resurrecting the earth from the dead of winter into the new life of spring.
But what about all the Easter bunnies and eggs, you ask? Well, the story that was told to me goes like this: One year, Eastre was late in coming and the snow didn’t melt. This made it hard for the birds to find food, and one little bird broke its leg while digging through the deep snow.
Showing mercy for the bird, Eastre turned it into a rabbit so that it could hop on top of the snow; however, she knew the rabbit still had the heart of a bird, so she allowed it to continue laying eggs – although its eggs would now boast all the colors of spring. It therefore became a tradition for families to paint Easter eggs in honor of their goddess and in gratitude for the spring. Aww. How sweet is that?
It was only centuries later that the tradition of “hiding” eggs grew. Many scholars believe this practice was a way for pagan families and children to honor Eastre without suffering persecution by the Catholic church which had criminalized paganism.
In a further effort to aggressively Christianize the pagan population, the Catholic church then said the resurrection of their god happened on Easter so that they could claim the holiday as a Christian one.
As more and more modern people embrace contemporary paganism and polytheism, from Wicca to Vesta and everything in between, we should also remember to embrace the many colors of spring — that includes respecting the many belief and non-belief systems, old and new, that celebrate in ways that are meaningful to them and their families.
We should especially remember the beautiful story of Eastre, the kind-hearted Anglo-Saxon goddess who brings the sunshine and warmth of spring.