The Origins of Easter
I recall happily trudging through the snow-covered field with my dad and sister. My dad carried a saw to cut down the tree and a sled to transport it home. No, we weren’t looking for a Christmas tree. We were looking for an Easter tree.
Easter was always a particularly happy day in my memories. Maybe it seemed so much happier after the long winter and the dreary Lent season. Lent is the 40 day period Catholics were expected to spend in reflection, almsgiving, and fasting. This is done in preparation for Jesus’s crucifixion. It begins with Ash Wednesday when the priest smudges ashes on adherents’ foreheads and ends with Jesus rising from the dead on Easter Sunday. Pretty magical sounding, huh?
In reality, it’s very depressing. There are long masses with guilt sprinkled on heads like holy water (and actual holy water). There were nightly Stations of the Cross where the priest would detail each bloody step Jesus took before being nailed to a cross. Then there was the year I had to watch it on the big screen when Mel Gibson released his movie, The Passion of the Christ. I was so used to the gruesome story I couldn’t figure out why my mom refused to watch it.
In retrospect, it was because the movie was bloody, horrific, and exhausting in its suffering. Finally, before Jesus’s death on the cross, confession to the priest was required to cleanse the soul before Jesus’s resurrection.
For a long time, I tried to give myself over to this faith. I had a clear foundation on which to build my life, a foundation that my family has used for generations. As I grew older and out of the house, I tried to make it work. But like a bad (sexist and homophobic) boyfriend, I gave it up. All of it. Even the idea of a god.
Still, there are relics in my house, ones I am too superstitious to remove like a crucifix and a holy family statue. When I see bleeding Jesus hanging on my wall, I wonder what parts of Easter should I celebrate? Really, from my nonbeliever standpoint, why celebrate anything if there is no larger guiding force behind it?
The specific tree we were looking for was the pussy willow. In spring its branches are still bare with soft gray tufts on the tips. It was ideal for our Easter egg tree. We would string lights on it and hang colored eggs from the branches. When we found the perfect tree, my dad sawed it down and used the sled to drag it back home, his girls trailing behind him.
The Sunday Easter falls on varies from year to year. It is the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. For a religion that is relatively divorced from the natural world, it’s a surprising detail. But isn’t Jesus’s resurrection just another story of rebirth and renewal? The son is reborn much like the sun is reborn with the spring equinox, its powers renewed.
Before Jesus and his resurrection, Eostre, a Germanic goddess representing spring renewal, light, and fertility, was celebrated. Not much is known about her or how exactly she was celebrated, but her name and iconography linger in today’s version of Easter. One such lingering symbol is the hare. Hares can get pregnant while already being pregnant, thus a symbol of fertility. Not much is known about how the hare turned into the Easter bunny delivering eggs. A 16th-century German text makes a reference to an Easter bunny but no hints to its origins. A fable that certainly endures, though I do not think it’s a coincidence that rabbits and eggs have come to represent Easter.
Eggs are another symbol of birth and new life, not only associated with Eostre, but with many cultures throughout history, from the Egyptians to the Phoenicians to the Hindus. Many cultures’ origin stories have the world being born from an egg. Eggs, painted with religious symbols like the cross, have even been adopted by the Christians to represent Jesus rising and emerging from the tomb.
As I researched the origins of Easter and its traditions, I noticed the stories and symbols are similar, simply a retelling of new life. Symbols are reappropriated to be what we need them to be. First, part of pagan rituals, then representative of Jesus’ rising, and now secularized as people step away from religion but still gather to participate by having egg hunts or hiding baskets delivered by the Easter bunny. Above all the stories and symbols are a celebration of the sun growing stronger, the Earth waking up from its wintery slumber, and life beginning again.
We decorated our Easter tree with hollowed-out, colored eggs. Using a sewing needle or safety pin to carefully poke a hole in the egg’s top and bottom, we would then blow the inside of the egg out. My cheeks would hurt from blowing the yolk out and we always broke a few eggs in the process. But once the insides were out and set aside for tomorrow’s breakfast, the empty shell would last forever, depending on how carefully we packed them in the attic for next Easter. Then the eggs would be dyed in bright colors and the year would be written on the bottom with crayon. Gluing a loop of string to the egg, we hung it on our tree. We were ready for Easter, and spring, to arrive.
I never knew the Easter tree wasn’t a widespread tradition. Since my family was Catholic and decorated trees with eggs, I thought all Catholics did. When my husband looked at me like I was nuts when I asked if he decorated a tree growing up, I found out, not so common after all. I then took to the internet searching its origins, and much like Eostre, not much is known. The Easter tree originated with the Germans and is called Ostereierbaum. One website said the “tree decorating ritual may have just been seen as a way to welcome the arrival of new blooms, buds, and chirping birds.” Again, another symbol, and celebration, of the birth and renewal of spring.
After months of cold and dark, I’m ready for the sun and heat to come back. I’ve been on the lookout for any sort of sign that spring is coming. And, joyously, I see it in the birds that are arriving back from winter nests, the maple trees that are tapped for syrup, the increasing increments of light that make the day longer, and the newly emerged buds on the trees. I realize these little acts of spring have filled me with more hope than any time spent in church. This year, in particular, seems more important than past Easter’s. Maybe it’s because I can see the end of the pandemic. My husband, grandparents, and other high-risk relatives are vaccinated and I will be soon, too. Life is waking up this year in a different way than it did last year when we were locked down and socially distanced. My son is also two and more aware of the things we do. What Easter traditions do I want to share with him? How do I want to chase away the darkness of winter and make way for another season of growth? It’s not going to be confessing my sins to a priest.
We will, of course, purchase a basket for our son and fill it with fake green grass and load it up with chocolate and bubbles and sidewalk chalk. We will probably hard boil eggs, dye them, then forget to eat them. We will gather together over a delicious meal. I will forgo church and all its associated guilt. But what else?
All the stories associated with Easter and the spring equinox are about birth and renewal. And what represents that more than a newly budding tree decorated with brightly colored eggs? I haven’t had an Easter tree since moving out of my parent’s house and never really thought to keep the tradition going, especially once I left the church behind. However, the tree and the egg are not rooted in the Catholic faith but in something much deeper. That the origins of the Easter rituals have been mostly obscured and made over into a religious holiday, then into a secular/capitalistic event points to the erasure of human connection to the Earth.
The celebration of spring is deeply connected to the Earth and its ability to start anew, and that deserves recognition. Especially as we grapple with a pandemic, climate change, and social upheaval. As plants bud and flowers bloom and the sun grows stronger, we should take Earth’s lesson to heart. Change is in our nature and we can always begin again.
I can still remember the song we would sing in church when the priest would sprinkle holy water on us. Rain down, rain down…sometimes the water would get in my eye and I would wonder how clean was it and was I more holy by standing in this man-made shower? I still don’t know the answers to those questions and they probably don’t matter. I do know that I would rather stand in Earth’s April showers and look for daffodils popping up through the snow.
That act of growth is more of a miracle than anything I’ve seen and should be celebrated like a miracle. So I am going to buy eggs and dye and trudge through my parent’s field to find a pussy willow tree and bring it back to my home to be decorated. And when my son is old enough to ask why we do this I will tell him it’s to celebrate spring coming and how we can begin again.