Easter is one of the most sacred of Christian holidays, and for children and adults alike, it is a time to look forward to. Apart from the religious significance attached to Easter, it is also a time of celebration where we look forward to that special visit from the Easter Bunny, exchanging Easter eggs, or taking part in the Easter egg hunt.
If we look back over the centuries, however, Easter – even though a Christian celebration – is also associated with non-Christian symbols, and fables long forgotten tell a tale of Easter than many of us have never heard. One such fable is based on Eastre the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, who, wanting to give her children a treat, decided to create a hare from a bird. Unfortunately the hare was very unhappy about this predicament as he missed being able to produce eggs and also being able to fly. The goddess, feeling sorry for the unhappy hare, allowed him to have one egg a year. The hare, however, still missed the ability to fly, and rather than listen to any more of his complaints she cast the hare into the night sky where it is said he became the constellation.
Another fable portrays the hare as being deeply in love with the Goddess , and as a token of this love he decorated his egg with lavish precious stones and layed it at her feet. The Goddess was so moved by this gesture that she instructed the hare to deliver eggs to all her people the world over, so they could enjoy the beauty and wonder she had experienced. Perhaps this is why we look forward to a visit from the Easter Bunny. The egg is also a sacred symbol representing life on earth, a new beginning. This would also coincide with Spring, a time of renewal and awakening of nature, life and hope. It is said the ancients who worshipped the Goddess when the moon was full following the Spring Equinox would see a sign of the hare on the moon. As a result, the hare is known as a moon symbol (or Goddess symbol) of vitality, fertility and life force.
The eighth century historian St. Bede believes that Easter owes its name to this Goddess of Spring, and in fact the Anglo-Saxons used the name Easter as a way to attract Pagans to Christianity. With the spread of Christianity, which absorbed the resident Pagan population, the Christians quickly realised that no-one would convert if they had to abandon their own traditions and holidays. This would explain why so many Pagan and Christian holidays have the same date, and similar practices with slightly different beliefs. The three days of Easter (the Trinity) is likened to the Triple Goddess (Crone, Mother and Virgin) of Pagan religion.
Spring is a time of fertility. The sun is gaining strength – lasting longer than the night, as well as supplying the land with warmth, renewal and returning to life. As a result, the main concept of this holiday is resurrection. The many Gods of ancient Pagan religions are all earth Gods and Goddesses. They are the embodiment of all the vegetation, trees and animals in the earth. According to mythology, these Gods die and are re-born again, often sacrificing themselves in order to protect the land. Parallels can be drawn here to Christ who sacrificed his life so that we would have eternal life.
My own memories of Easter in Ireland are filled with fondness and a real belonging to a land steeped in ancient myths and traditions. One of our loveliest traditions was to leave food and drink out for the fairies over the Easter period. We believe that if the fairies are not honoured in this way, bad luck would befall the farmers, who are known as the keepers of the land. In order to bring in a good crop, the farmers continue to honour the fairies and the tradition to this very day. Coming from a farming family, I took special pride in carrying out this tradition which, needless to say, has now been handed down to my own children.
Regardless of where you are in the world or how you celebrate Easter, whether you take part in the Easter Egg Hunt, dye hard boiled eggs and roll them down a hill, or like me over indulge in all that chocolate, think of it as a time to reflect, connect with your faith, enjoy your family and ponder the celebration of ancient times, which may not be very different to our own. Have a very happy and magical Easter.