Easter customs born anew


In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul (writing with Sosthenes) provides the earliest account of the Resurrection of Jesus. Written in approximately 54 AD, the text is divided into seven main sections. Of these the sixth section (Chapter 15) underscores the significance, indeed, essential position of the resurrection story for Christianity.

Verses 13-17 state the Pauline admonishment clearly: “(13) If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. (14) And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (15) More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. (16) For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. (17) And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”

Few things in modern cultures have a unitary and discrete developmental trajectory. So it is with Easter. While it is the defining event of the Christian faith, modern celebrations of Easter have borrowed heavily from other religious and cultural traditions. Just as St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas traditions are a conflation of pagan and Christian observances, so too, is Easter.

It is not mere coincidence that Easter, the Jewish Passover celebration and the vernal equinox are all proximate to one another. Be it a resurrection, emancipation or emergence from winter, all three are stories of life anew. All three contribute to what we know as the modern Easter holiday.

To this point, the ancient Greek philosopher Lucretius wrote, “Nothing in the universe is the only one of its kind …there must be countless worlds and inhabitants thereof.”

The name Easter itself derives from pagan traditions among the people of Germania. Spellings vary — Eostre, Austre and Eastre — but they are all a reference to Ostra, the Great Mother Goddess. A feminine figure as the harbinger of spring is a common theme in many cultures.

Aphrodite in ancient Greece and Freya of Norse mythology, for example, both share several characteristics with Ostara, including her notable companion, the rabbit.

So, why then does the Easter bunny bring eggs? This too is a product of German paganism. Part of the Ostara story holds that she healed a wounded bird she found in the woods. She did so by changing it into a hare. Part bird, part hare, the healed creature showed its gratitude to the goddess by laying eggs as gifts.

Many Christians would likely bristle at the fact that Christian holidays — more often than not — contain elements of other traditions. This is, however, a needless affront. Rather, it is a testament of Christian adaptability to co-opt compatible elements into its own narratives.

In a somewhat analogous tone, Christian theologian C. S. Lewis once wrote about humanity’s place in the Universe and whether our singularity was a necessary precondition for Christian faith: “It is, of course, the essence of Christianity that God loves man and for his sake became man and died. But that does not prove that man is the sole end of nature. In the parable, it was one lost sheep that the shepherd went in search of: It was not the only sheep in the flock, and we are not told that it was the most valuable — save insofar as the most desperately in need has, while the need lasts, a peculiar value in the eyes of Love.”

With this spirit, we see that Easter can coexist with its antecedents. It does not detract from the magnitude of the event to acknowledge it has context beyond the confines of one world tradition.