The Folklore Behind Easter

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Fertility, rebirth, and resurrections have been apart of human culture since the dawn of civilization.  The bunny and the egg are universal symbols representing fertility and rebirth. Cultures throughout time have been celebrating the rebirth of life by paying homage to old gods and goddesses of spring, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus, or still pondering the unsolved philosophical question, “which came first the chicken or the egg?”.

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A decorated ostrich egg over 60,000 years old

Ostara or Eostre

Anglo-Saxons were Germanic inhabitants of Europe between the 5th and 11th century until the Norman Conquest.  Before the 8th century, Eostre was a Saxon goddess of Dawn and Spring. The hare was considered to be her sacred animal representing fertility and the egg was a symbol for rebirth.  The Scandinavians of this time period referred to her as Ostra and those who lived in the area now known as Germany called her Ostara. In Germany today they celebrate Ostern which is Easter to the english speaking world.  There were many other gods and goddesses worshiped by ancient cultures during the spring equinox around the Mediterranean Sea, but Eostre is so far the only pagan goddess that has a direct influence on the modern holiday Easter.

ostara_by_johannes_gehrts

Passover

In Judaism, Passover is one of the three Shalosh Regalim, or 3 pilgrimage festivals.  People would gather in Jerusalem at springtime with their agricultural offerings. On the first night of Passover a seder (order) meal that has 15 separate steps in a traditional order is prepared.  At sometime during the seder the telling of the story of Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach (Passover) is told. The seder ritual objects can vary by tradition but most common are a shank bone, lettuce, an egg, greens, a bitter herb, and a mixture of apples, nuts and spices.  The egg represents the Passover offering of ancient days as well as the wholeness and continuing cycle of life.

A Ukrainina 19th century seder table

The Resurrection of Jesus

Christians celebrate Easter as a remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus was crucified and resurrected during Passover. In 325 AD the Council of Nicaea determined that Easter should be the Sunday that follows the first moon, after the Spring Equinox.  On the Gregorian calendar, (named after Pope Gregory XIII) that would fall between 22nd of March and 25th of April. The Christian custom of Easter eggs started with early Christians of Mesopotamia who colored eggs red to represent the blood of Christ.

Red_Paschal_Egg_with_Cross

 

The Easter Bunny

The Easter Bunny is the egg-laying bunny that leaves colored Easter eggs on Easter Sunday.  In the 1700’s German immigrants brought this tradition into America. The parents told their children to use their bonnets or caps as nests and leave them out at night before going to bed and if they were good, the Easter Bunny (Oschter Haws or Osterhase) would leave them eggs in their nests.  Eventually traditions evolved where the egg-laying bunny would lay and hide the eggs for the children to hunt.

no evil bunnies

Final Thoughts…

For those of you who have been losing sleep over the metaphysical question,  “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”. It’s simple of course; the magical bunny laid the egg and out hatched the chicken.  Now you can get some sleep and have a good night.

funny bunny

References

Patterson, R. (2011, April 19). Is the Name “Easter” of Pagan Origin? Retrieved April 25,      2018, from  https://answersingenesis.org/holidays/easter/is-the-name-easter-of-pagan-origin/

The Pagan origins of Easter. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.religioustolerance.org/easter1.htm

Ēostre. (2018, April 18). Retrieved April 25, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ēostre

(n.d.). Retrieved from http://archives.adventistreview.org/article/1062/archives/issue-2007-1509/jews-revive-the-sanhedrin-with-plans-for-a-passover-sacrifice/adventists-and-easter

Passover: Customs and Rituals. (2018, February 06). Retrieved April 25, 2018, from https://reformjudaism.org/passover-customs-and-rituals

Easter egg. (2018, April 20). Retrieved April 25, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_egg

Travers, P., & ABC Radio Canberra. (2017, April 13). Origin of Easter: From pagan rituals to bunnies and chocolate eggs. Retrieved April 25, 2018, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-15/the-origins-of-easter-from-pagan-roots-to-chocolate-eggs/8440134

Origins of Easter. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2018, from https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2017/04/13/origins-of-easter.html

Origin Of Easter. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2018, from https://www.allaboutjesuschrist.org/origin-of-easter.htm

Is it true that the name Easter is pagan in origin? (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2018, from https://billygraham.org/answer/is-it-true-that-the-name-easter-is-pagan-in-origin/

Sifferlin, A. (2015, April 01). Easter Bunny: The Origins of Easter Day’s Rabbit. Retrieved April 25, 2018, from http://time.com/3767518/easter-bunny-origins-history/

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The Origins of Christmas

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Family and friends gathering together on a day of exchanging gifts, eating themselves to food stupers, laughing and singing, and getting blitzed on grandma’s eggnog, are just some of the traditions that have been around long before the concept of commercialism.

Winter Solstice

Various cultures have been celebrating the shortest day of the year on the northern hemisphere for thousands of centuries.  Pagans in the Scandinavian regions a.k.a Vikings, would have fire festivals to encourage the sun to return and to pay tribute to Thor.  Yule; depending on the year of the Gregorian calendar, was and currently celebrated sometime between December 21 to 23.  A Yule or Juul log would be brought into the home and burned in the fireplace.  Pouring wine on the log to add a sweet smell when burning or adding other chemicals onto the log to give the flame a certain color became part of the traditions of Yule.  The log would be burned until there were nothing but ashes and then collected. Some people would throw the ashes out onto their fields for good luck.  Others would keep the yule log ashes as a charm or use them for medicine.  Sometimes a piece of the log that remained from the fire would be kept for goodluck and used for next years celebration as kindling.  The Yule tradition lives on even today in Europe and North America.

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Saturnalia

The Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice by honoring Saturnus the god of agriculture, liberation, and time.  Saturnus was the inspiration behind the naming of the planet Saturn and also Saturday.  During the celebration of Saturnalia laws were ignored and slaves were temporarily freed.  Drinking, singing and gambling became open in the public view with no fear of getting busted by the authorities.  Orgies, feasts, gift giving, and sacrifices were also common traditions during the festivities.  Cookies shaped as humans were baked and given as presents that would be later consumed by the recipients.  The statue of Saturnus would be unbound from its woolen shackles connecting it to its base and carried through the streets of Rome and placed in a public courtyard while the public wines and feasts to celebrate the liberated god that is amongst them.  

saturnalia

The festival started off with a tradition known as the “Lord of Misrule”.  The leaders of the Roman communities would select a criminal or slave and free them.  They would allow them to sit at their table as an honored guest and wine and dine them.  At the end of the festival the honored guest would be sacrificed as a representation of vanquishing evil from society.  How much of this practice is true or was even commonly practiced is uncertain.  However, one of my sources stated that Gaius Petronius Arbiter; a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero, wrote about an incident that involved a slave who was allowed to sit at the table of his masters.  After heavy consumption of alcohol the slave started to mock emperor Nero and the slave’s master joined in and encouraged his impudence.  Towards the end of the dinner party, the master and his guests circled the slave and brutally murdered the foolish man for acting like the emperor.

Saint Nicholas

Also known as “Nikolaos of Myra”, was a fourth century Greek Orthodox saint who was born in Asia Minor, now known as Turkey.  Nicholas was born into a well-to-do christian family.  His parents died from an epidemic and Nicholas inherited a great fortune.  Nicholas was then raised by his uncle and the Greek Orthodox church and became highly educated.  Later becoming an ordained priest himself,  St. Nicholas developed a strong reputation for being a generous and kind man.  

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Legend has it, a very poor man had three daughters who were going to be forced into prostitution due to their father not having any money to pay dowries towards potential husbands.  Once Nicholas got wind of this, Nicholas visited the man’s home and threw in a bag of gold coins through an open window to pay for the eldest daughter’s dowry.  Later Nicholas came back to do the same thing for the other two daughters.  The poor man caught Nicholas in the act the third time and was so grateful, even under Nicholas’s advisement not to,  the poor man announced to the public about Nicholas’s kindness and generosity.  St.  Nicholas’s acts of kindness spread greater than the own man’s deeds themselves and later ended up making him the Patron Saint of Children and Sailors.

The Nativity of Jesus

The discussion of Jesus’s birth didn’t appear until after 200 years of his persecution. The telling of Jesus’s birth originated from  the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Neither gospels mentioned a date or the year of Jesus’s birth.  The first date that was documented was from Clement of Alexandria and he stated that Jesus’s birthdate was on Pachon 25 (May 20th).  Other religious scholars have placed the date on March 21, April 15, April 20, and April 21.  It wasn’t until around the fourth century when Pope Julius I set the date on December 25th.  The first staged nativity scene occurred on Christmas Eve night in a town of Greccio, Italy in 1223.  St. Francis of Assisi was inspired to create the live nativity scene due to his disgust with the greed and materialism that plagued Italy.  It was to serve as a reminder that Jesus didn’t come to us a rich king but as a poor child.

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The First Christmas Tree

Germany has been credited of starting the Christmas tree tradition sometime during the 16th century.  It is believed that Martin Luther, a renegade catholic priest who became a Protestant reformer, was the first to add lighted candles to a tree.  Supposedly Martin Luther was walking home one night and was bewildered by the stars in the sky twinkling behind the backdrop of the evergreen trees in the forest.  According to the story, Martin Luther chopped a tree down and brought it to his house.  He set the tree up inside his home decorated the tree with the first homemade wired set of candle holders.  Martin Luther wanted to share his previous experience in the woods with his family by lighting the candles that were draped around the tree that represented the twinkling stars in the heavens.

christmas-tree-with-candles

References

Understanding the Nativity Scene. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://archstl.org/stewardship/page/understanding-nativity-scene

Nuwer, R. (2012, December 14). The First Nativity Scene Was Created in 1223. Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-first-nativity-scene-was-created-in-1223-161485505/

Saturn – God of Agriculture – Crystalinks. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://www.crystalinks.com/saturnrome.html

Haskell, C. (n.d.). How to Celebrate Yule With a Pagan Family. Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://thestir.cafemom.com/baby/113242/how_to_celebrate_yule_with

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas? (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2016, from https://bible.org/article/should-christians-celebrate-christmas

History.com Staff. (2009). History of Christmas Trees. Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

St. Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131219-santa-claus-origin-history-christmas-facts-st-nicholas/

St. Nicholas – Saints & Angels. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=371

(n.d.). St. Nicholas, Santa Claus & Father Christmas on whychristmas?com. Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/fatherchristmas.shtml

The Winter Solstice – Yule Lore. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2016, from https://wicca.com/celtic/akasha/yule.htm

December Solstice Customs. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2016, from https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/december-solstice-customs.html

Saturnalia. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/saturnalia.html

The Origins of Christmas. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/history/2009/Origins-of-Christmas.html

Origin of Christmas | The history of Christmas and how it began. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/Christmas_TheRealStory.htm

Auletta, K. (n.d.). The Most Unique Christmas Traditions Around The World. Retrieved December 29, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/24/world-christmas-tradition_n_4479333.html

Halloween

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The origins of Halloween can be traced  all the way back to the Celts (800-450 BC).  Samhain (pronounced Sow-in or Sah- win) means “Summer’s end” and to the Celts, November the 1st  was considered to be the New Year.  What’s amazing is that a few of the customs that our pagan ancestors celebrated during Samhain have been maintained and have transcended through time to what is currently now known as Halloween.  There have been a lot of adaptations added from other cultures all throughout the time span that has molded this unique day that pays homage to the dead.

Samhain…

A fire festival, that was used by the Celts to encourage the sun to stay up as long as possible, that would start to take place on what is now known as October 31st and considered to be the last day of the year.  It was believed that on this day the veil between the living and the dead vanishes and the spirits of the dead become visible to the eyes of the living.  It was a common believe of this time period that the spirits would roam the earth looking for a body to posses, so the Celts would dress in costumes, mainly wearing animal heads and skins, and dance around bonfires to entertain the spirits and hopefully dupe them to prevent possessions of their bodies from malevolent spirits.  They would leave their front doors open to their lost loved ones.  The original Jack-ó-lanterns, made out of large turnips, beets, or potatoes, were placed on window ledges to scare off evil spirits.  November 1st, was the day that represented the end of summer, end of harvest, and the beginning of the dark cold winter.  Which is typically the time that is associated with death in many other cultures as well.

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Feralia and Pomona

Around 43 AD, the Romans were able to expand the territory that claim the majority of Celtic land and for 400 years influenced the former Celtic people with two Roman festivals known as Feralia; a day to honor the passing of the dead, and a day to honor Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees.  The “bobbing for apples” game that is frequently played at Halloween kid parties is suspected to have have originated from the Romans because the apple served as a symbol for Pomona.

pomona

Roman Catholic Church

In 601 AD, Pope Gregory issued an order to his missionaries regarding concerns of converting the Celts.  The Roman Catholic church learned from experience that when dealing with pagans, instead of condemning them for their ideologies you used their beliefs and redirected them to be about Christ and allow them to continue their customs.  Pope Gregory IV had planned on turning Samhain into All Saints day in 835, but All Souls Day was established in 998 in a French monastery and spread quickly throughout Europe.  The celtic pagan rituals and beliefs were converted into worshiping martyrs and saints.

los Días de los Muertos

The Aztecs festival of the dead was originally a two-month celebration that also fell into the Fall season and was tied into celebrating the harvest season.  The festival was to pay homage to Mictecacíhuatl, the Goddess of the Dead and the Underworld also known as Mictlán.  Mictlán was not considered  to be a dark or scary place, it was actually viewed to be a peaceful realm where souls resided and waited for the days of visiting the living.  After the European invasion of the Americas, the Catholic monasteries employed the same tactic used with the Celts.  All Souls day was instituted into the daily lives of the natives and All Souls day and the native Aztec beliefs merged and formed what is now considered los Días de los Muertos (The Days of the Dead) which is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd.

dia-de-los-muertos

Halloween in the United States

Various Halloween traditions that are celebrated in the U.S. were influenced by European immigrants, mainly during the second half of the19th century.  By combining Irish and English traditions, the trick-or-treat tradition began in the U.S.  In the 1950’s, community leaders decided to make the holiday more directed towards the youth to minimize vandalism.  

References

History.com Staff. (2009). History of the Jack O’ Lantern. Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/jack-olantern-history

History.com Staff. (2009). History of Halloween. Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween

Pon, D. (n.d.). The Origins of Halloween. Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.albany.edu/~dp1252/isp523/halloween.html

Origins of Halloween and the Day of the Dead | EDSITEment. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from https://edsitement.neh.gov/feature/origins-halloween-and-day-dead

Santino, J. (n.d.). Halloween. Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.loc.gov/folklife/halloween.html

The origin of Halloween is found in Celtic Ireland. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/origin-of-Halloween.html