Easter

By Sebastiano Ricci, The Resurrection

Sunday after Full Moon following Vernal Equinox

Originally a celebration of the goddess Ēostre, but now commemorating the resurrection of Jesus after his death on Good Friday, Easter is a day of note within the British and international calendars. The date is calculated by finding the fourteenth day of the lunar month (which may or may not be an actual full moon) which occurs on or after the Vernal Equinox. The Sunday following this date will be designated as Easter, and the rest of the calendar dates which are linked to it—including Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, and Pentecost—are then mapped accordingly. This has been tradition since the early church in the centuries following the death of Christ. It was recorded in writing by Saint Bede, an English Benedictine Monk, in the year 725. The date was decided as it linked both to Passover, the Jewish festival commemorating the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, and Ēosturmōnaþ, the Old English month of the goddess Ēostre which corresponded approximately to April.

Ēostre, also referred to as Ēastre in Old English and Ôstara in Old High German, has been recorded in numerous accounts since Bede, but is also evidenced in the Matronae Austriahenae which dates from 150–250 AD. Before the Christianisation of Britain in the 7th Century, an entire month was dedicated to feasting and celebrations in honour of Ēostre. Traditions supposedly included the veneration of hares who carried her dawn lights during Spring sunrises, as Ēostre was a goddess of dawn, new life, and fertility. This led to the conflation of the March hare and the Ēostre’s hares on greetings cards, which became popular in the Victorian era. These fused in the public consciousness and evolved into the Easter rabbit as a marketing strategy for selling chocolate eggs—another Victorian invention—and folklore was rewritten to suggest the Easter Bunny laid eggs for children to enjoy.

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month,’ and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

Bede, The Reckoning of Time, translated by Wallis

Following the nationalisation of Christianity, Easter traditions were focused on the resurrection of Christ. It became a national holiday in Britain, with feasting instead of work. People gifted new clothes to each other and wore those clothes to the feasts, as the belief held that rooks would spoil old clothes worn that day, and it is from this custom that the tradition of creating and wearing a new bonnet grew. Easter bonnets were often adorned with signs of Spring such as a chicks and rabbits, as well as eggs. As eating eggs was prohibited throughout Lent, those that had been laid since the Day of Ashes would have been boiled and preserved, ready to be eaten at the Easter feast. In preparation for this, the eggs would be decorated and painted so they appeared magical when served. The older eggs, which would no longer be suitable for eating, would beused for decoration, hidden for children to find, carried on spoons in races, or rolled downhill then chased. Easter celebrations then continued throughout the Octave of Easter for a week until Low Sunday, and there was no work during that time. Eastertide itself lasted for fifty days until Pentecost, though it was more a period of ritual than of celebration once the week of Easter and following Hocktide had passed.

In modern Britain Easter is less of a raucous occasion than it used to be, but hares—or rabbits—and eggs still permeate popular culture, and churches mark it as the day of Christ’s resurrection with services. Whilst there are no records of prehistoric celebrations from Ancient Britain, Anglo-Saxon influences in terms of Germanic religious practices are evidenced, and so there is awareness of the pagan roots of the popular Easter traditions.

Sebastiano Ricci, The Resurrection
Sebastiano Ricci, The Resurrection, Public Domain