What do colored eggs, rabbits and lambs have to do with the sacred Christian celebration called “Easter” and what does “Easter” mean, anyway?
And, haven’t you ever wondered how the Easter bunny carries the Easter basket, and of even more concern should be, why is a mammal delivering the unhatched babies of chickens? Rabbits don’t lay eggs, Mister.
I think these are serious issues and that we are going to have to address them if we are to move on with our lives. Take my hand. We’re going back some 2000 years to Jerusalem.
We arrive in this beautiful city, with dual crowns of the great Roman palace of Herod and the sacred Temple of the Jews, on the first day of Passover and a beautiful day it is. The bleating of lambs, the voices of children at play and the singing of women as they prepare the traditional Seder Passover dinner fills the air, along with the mouth-watering aroma of roast lamb. The Jewish inhabitants of the city are celebrating their exodus from bondage in Egypt some 1200 years earlier. It is a happy day.
One of those Roman guards has noticed our interest. His brows are lowering ominously. Moving right along—watch your step—donkey-doo—we wander among the food and trinket vendors in the marketplace, only peripherally aware of some commotion over at the south gate of the city. Some people are running that way, others just craning their necks. Some kind of parade or something. We see the tips of palm fronds waving and faint singing and shouting. It passes off in the direction of the Temple.
Can I taste that fig thingamajig? How much?
Night. Stars twinkle in the fronds of date palms and the branches of olive trees. The windows of the houses up and down the valley are softly lit with oil lamps. People are performing the quiet rituals of Passover. From the palace of course, we catch occasional bursts of laughter, some shouting and the music of flutes and cymbals and those cute little tympanum drums and bells. As usual, a party’s in full swing over there with all manner of wickedness. We stop to rest beside a two-story building, an inn perhaps. Through the open window over our heads we hear the murmur of voices. Probably a Seder dinner, although we don’t hear the voices of women and children. Odd. Only men. Then quiet for a moment and one voice speaking quietly. We start to walk away when a man comes running out the doorway and takes off down the street. Something’s not right here. Time to go home.
We know now, of course, that two days after this Passover night, among the criminals executed by crucifixion on Golgotha Hill outside the city walls, was a political prisoner named Jesus. Some Jews believed this man to be their long-awaited Messiah, or the Christ. They called him Jesus, the Christ, and Christianity was born.
We don’t know for sure when these first Christian Jews named a day to commemorate the resurrection of the Christ, but it is only natural that, as roast lamb had long been a traditional Passover dish, it would convey to the Christianity as a traditional Easter dish. Natural, too, that these Christian Jews, whose people had ritually sacrificed lambs in their religious observances, would refer to Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God.
The Hebrew word for Passover was Pesach, which came down through Latin into Spanish and French, two languages that evolved from Latin, as Pascua and Paques. Thus, even the first words for this religious observance were Jewish in origin.
The English word for this event may have come down from the old Germanic word, “Eostre.” Eostre was the pagan goddess of spring and fertility. (Pagans again, running around all over the place. Sadly, there are only a few of us left.) Humans have always associated spring with rebirth, resurrection and abundant life. Naturally they would bring to the celebration of the resurrection of the Christ, the symbols they had long associated with spring. The egg, for instance, an ancient symbol of new life, became the symbol of Christ’s emergence from the tomb and was thus, from the beginning, nestled snugly into Christian Easter imagery. It’s as if the only way early Christians could get the pagans into church, so to speak, was to let them come dragging with them their favorite gods and goddesses, like children clutching their beloved security blankets and binkies.
And wabbits? Wabbits are such comically prolific animals, that they, too, are an ancient symbol of spring, specifically of, well, fertility. Rabbits have never carried any sacred or religious significance, however. It is believed that the rabbit, as an “Easter” rabbit or bunny, was brought to America in the 1700s by German immigrants, whose pagan ancestors, remember, may have given us the word “Easter.” And apparently, from the symbol of the rabbit, evolved a story of an “Oster has” or Easter rabbit who hides colored eggs in people’s gardens on Easter morning. Centuries ago, children began to make little nests for the rabbits to lay the eggs in. You know kids. They weren’t taking any chances.
Over time, the nests were replaced with baskets and though, like the Oster has, we still hide colored eggs for the kids to find, Easter baskets are now filled with candies and toys. Chocolate eggs were first concocted in Europe in the 1800s, but jelly beans (1930s) and yellow, marshmallow “Peeps” (1950s) are more recent innovations.
One secular Easter tradition that has almost disappeared is the Easter parade. Remember Irving Berlin’s song, “In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it/You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.” We first heard this song in the film “Easter Parade” and it was sung by Judy Garland. The film showcases a tradition that began in the mid-1800s in New York City. On Easter morning, when the Fifth Avenue churches concluded their Easter services, the wealthy and fashionably elite ladies of New York society would stroll along Fifth Avenue on their husbands’ arms showing off the fresh spring confectionary of their hats, parasols and beribboned silks. The effect was so colorful that regular folks would beat it up to Fifth Avenue just before the churches let out and line up to watch. Which is exactly what us regular folks are doing today when we turn the pages of fashion and movie star magazines, or click through them online.
It’s okay. Life is not easy. We, who are brave enough to endure it, can feel at times as if we are in bondage to one thing or another, can feel at times as if life itself were a crucifixion. We need the reassurance that our Passover and our Easter gives us, that, in the end, we will be released from bondage, that we will not die.
The wonder of us is that, even in the midst of our private, often silent suffering, in the course of the struggles of life, our eyes are still delighted with pretty things. We are wonderful in that we can still hunt for colored eggs and laugh, every single time we find one.
I think that must be why we are loved, and why we will never die.