EasterTo our ancestors, the arrival of spring was always a reason to celebrate. After the barren winter months living on stored foods, spring brought the promise of fresh game and new life.

In the north, the people believed in a goddess called Eastre who gave birth to spring every year. The name means spring, and also remains with us in the word estrogen.
The ancient pagan ceremony survives today as the Wiccan festival of Ostara (another variation on the name of the Goddess).

The pagan Easter was celebrated during Christ’s time. It is referred to in the Bible as being a day celebrated by King Herod. But as Christianity spread around the world, it was easier to incorporate Christian festival days into those that already existed, so Eastre became Easter, the culmination of Lent. In many Catholic countries, Easter is celebrated in a lavish manner with parades and passion plays.

But outside the Church, it’s mainly the pagan elements that have come to be associated with Easter, the eggs, the bunnies and the Easter hat parade. These elements add fun and involve children – like our early ancestors, we enjoy dressing up and associating our festivals with special foods.
The chocolate egg is probably the strongest secular association, and it is certainly the most commercially successful. Eggs are associated with Easter because they represent new life. In earlier times they were decorated with food colorings, and used in various games, like egg rolling and egg and spoon races.

Chocolate wasn’t brought to Europe until the 15th Century, and didn’t get poured into an egg mold until the 19th when Fry’s chocolate company made a dark chocolate egg. In 1905 Cadbury’s introduced their milk chocolate version and Easter chocolate sales have never looked back.

The Easter bunny is believed to have evolved from worship of the Goddess herself, who appeared in spring in the guise of a rabbit. The rabbit, of course, represents fertility, and so has long been associated with this festival.

The Easter hat parade harks back to the belief that if you do not wear something new for Easter, it will bring bad luck. A new hat was the ideal choice, because you could wear it to church without seeming too ostentatious and most people could afford one. Irving Berlin made the whole concept wildly popular with his song Easter Parade in the 30s. Now buying a new hat is not so important, but the tradition continues with children’s Easter hat parades at schools in many parts of the world.

Easter food has traditions of its own – many people still do eat meat on Good Friday because it is the day of Christ’s death. Fish is always eaten instead. In Britain, the traditional Easter cake is Simnel Cake, a rich fruit cake with almond paste covering similar to Christmas cake. But that’s not why it got its name – simnel refers to the finely ground wheat flour used in the recipe.

In Eastern Europe the traditional cake is a Baba, made with yeast and soaked in thin frosting. Yeast breads and cakes have long been associated with Easter because of using up the last of the dried fruits stored over winter, and because the rising action of yeasted loaves represents the resurrection.

Easter is a festival far older than the Church, and has traditions associated with it that date back far beyond Christ. It is a festival in which everything has a deeper meaning, and perhaps that is why it is loved by believers and non-believers alike.