Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Traditions

Many people may wonder why we never celebrate Easter on a particular, fixed day. Easter is a "movable" holiday that falls on the first Sunday that comes after the first full moon that occurs after the equinox.

In the past, vernal equinox was considered to be the beginning of a new year. It carried a special importance to the farmers because it signified the beginning of spring. In many traditions, spring was not only the season of nature's regeneration and growth, but also time of the resurrection of the sun god from the underworld. Christianity, of course, celebrates the resurrection of Christ. 

The word “Easter” derives from the Old English word Ēastre that has its origin in Proto-Germanic word Austrōn or "dawn" and can also be traced back to the Germanic divinity Austrō from whom the goddess Ēostre (Ostara) has descended. 

In pre-Christian Europe, Anglo-­Saxons worshiped the moon goddess of spring and fertility Ēostre (Ostara). She was always represented standing among spring flowers and holding an egg in her hand. Hare was her sacred animal. It laid eggs to honor her and to encourage her fruitfulness, hence the Easter egg tradition, hence the Easter bunny.

Another reason why eggs became integral part of Easter holiday is that they were one of the foods forbidden by the Church during Lent, or the forty-day period of fasting and penitence that ends on Easter Sunday. In rural society, eggs were always abundant in the springtime and were symbols of creation and fertility. They bore the new life, par excellence.

In many cultures, for millennia, eggs have been associated with spring rituals. Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Gauls, and the Ancient Chinese all regarded the egg as a symbol of the universe. In ancient Egypt and Persia, where spring was celebrated as the beginning of a new year, people exchanged decorated eggs at the vernal equinox. In Medieval England for instance, a royal household record from 1290 indicates that King Edward I ordered four hundred and fifty eggs to be dyed or gilded as Easter gifts.  

In Poland, where Easter eggs are elaborately decorated in most households, various legends describe miracles. One such legend talks of the Virgin Mary delivering eggs to the Roman soldiers at the cross and begging them to be kind to Christ. As she wept under the cross, her tears fell on the eggs and spotted them with radiant colors. Another legend talks of Mary Magdalene. When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ, she brought some eggs with her for a meal. When she uncovered the eggs in her basket, the shells had taken on the colors of the rainbow. This legend might have given birth to the Polish tradition of the Easter basket that is usually blessed by a priest on a Saturday that falls after the Good Friday.  

One more Easter custom that deserves to be mentioned here is the use of perfumed water. Early Christians used to add perfume and essences to the holy water and sprinkle it around the house, on animals, and on food to ensure blessings. On Easter Monday, men would wake women with a sprinkling of the fragrant Easter water and speak the words “May you never wither.” To this day this tradition is quite vivid in Poland where perfumed water is sprinkled on Easter Monday. In rural areas people call it "Smigus Dingus" or "Wet Monday" and celebrate this spring "purifying" ritual with buckets of water, lots of screaming and laughter. 

Many contemporary Christians are not aware of the pagan origin of their festivals and holidays. In order to survive in pagan Europe, Christian Church adopted many pagan rituals, traditions and symbols for its own celebration of the resurrection of Christ. It also appropriated pagan sacred places and erected its own places of warship. As the Christianity took over, the sacred traditions of Druids, Slavs, the Norsemen, or the Germanic people were forgotten or simply eradicated with the help of fire and sword. 

No matter what tradition is celebrated - Christian or pagan - Nature always takes her cyclical turn. After a long winter, everything springs to life, almost overnight. This, in itself, is a miracle. 

Wishing everybody Happy Easter and a very joyous celebration of life ~ Dominique