“What are the origins of our secular Easter traditions?” Ensign, Apr. 1982, 29–31
Robert C. Patch, professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University. There are several different views on the origin of the term Easter. In one view, the name Easter has its origin in an Anglo-Saxon tradition of a goddess named Eastre (also spelled Eostre and Ostra). It is said that the hare was sacred to her, but little is known of this goddess or the tradition surrounding her. Some authorities even deny that such a deity was worshipped by the early Germanic tribes.
In another view, the term Easter is related to a goddess of dawn worshipped by peoples in early India and in later Roman times. According to this view, the word east comes from the early tradition in Western civilization of people facing eastward to worship the dawn. The secular festival of Easter was regarded as the beginning of the new year. Remnants of this kind of celebration may still be seen in southern Germany.1 Spring—the time of sunshine, of flowers, of new growth, of new life—was celebrated as the season giving promise of new life to mankind.
But although the Easter timing is associated with the spring season, the Christian Easter had its origin in other themes. In Asia Minor, it was the Atonement that was first celebrated at this time of year. The day of the Atonement was celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan, which was the “day of preparation” before Passover.
In the Hebrew calendar system, a day goes from sunset to sunset, and months are lunar months. This means that, using our calendar as a basis, a month’s duration and the numbering of the days therein shift annually, depending upon the moon’s rotations. Thus, using the Hebrew identification of a day—sunset to sunset—all the events of Gethsemane occurred on the same Hebrew day—Nissan 14.
However, there were those—mostly Jewish Christians—who held that not Nissan 14, but Nissan 15 should be the day for remembering the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The argument for Nissan 15 rested on the fact that Nissan 15 was the first day of unleavened bread of the Passover celebration, commemorating the time in Egypt when the destroying angel passed over the homes of Israel which had the blood of a lamb sprinkled over the door. The very Passover celebration itself was a great prototype of the Savior’s mission to offer his life and blood for all who followed him, thus permitting our sins to be “passed over” on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice and our individual repentance. The argument between these two camps—Nissan 14 vs. Nissan 15—continued for some time, resulting in the observance of Easter at different times by different groups. This confusion continued into the eighth century.
The day we now observe Easter was basically established at the Council of Nicea, A.D. 325, at which time arguments to lessen the Jewish influence on the Easter celebration prevailed. The emphasis of the celebration was therefore moved from the Atonement to the Resurrection.2
This decision involved rejecting the Jewish calendar system in favor of the Julian calendar system when identifying the date for Easter. The Resurrection occurred “on the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1), and since Sunday is the first day of the Julian week, Sunday was selected for Easter celebration. The Sunday to be Easter was selected by making solar measurements associated with the new season, a partial return to the spring theme. Thus, the day for Easter observance was set as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. There are years when this definition of the date for Easter is not precisely true for all the time zones of the world, but generally it is accurate.
A number of Easter traditions have arisen over the centuries which have inspired some and puzzled others. In medieval Europe, a most popular symbol of the Easter season was a lamb, a symbol of Christ. Prayers for the blessing of these animals are dated from the seventh century, and even in modern Europe the meat becomes the main course for an Easter meal.
The most popular Easter tradition today is the egg. The story of the egg dates from ancient times in India and Egypt, where it was regarded as a symbol of cosmic beginnings. Some religions believed the universe was produced from an egg, thinking that an egg, regarded as dead, had the capability of releasing new life after having been shattered. Consequently, the egg early became associated with the theme of resurrection.
The custom of early Christians in Europe and the Near East was to exchange Easter eggs. However, other religions at that same time also may have influenced this Christian practice. In the fourteenth century a European monarch dyed some eggs, covered others with gold leaf, and distributed them to friends and servants. In Europe and the Baltics, colored eggs became very ornate and the paintings on cooked and glass eggs became works of art. Sometimes the egg shell was pierced and the egg blown out; the shell was then plastered and painted. The more ornate the art on an egg, the more highly the recipient was esteemed. In Christian Europe, red eggs became very popular, the color being derived from the blood of the Atonement. Celebrants would carry eggs in their pockets and give them to friends and relatives whom they visited.
Aside from the view tying Easter to the Anglo-Saxon goddess and the hare, the earliest reference to an Easter rabbit seems to date from late sixteenth century. A seventeenth-century German story said the Easter bunny laying eggs was a fable, but credited the Easter rabbit with bringing happiness to children by bringing them eggs, candies, and pastries.3 Some youngsters prepared small nests, even nests of rocks, to accommodate this Easter visitor.
Many songs and poems have been composed on Easter themes over the centuries; some have become part of the secular celebration while others have become part of our Christian worship. The eighteenth-century Protestant, Charles Wesley, composed an Easter hymn now sung worldwide, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” which is much loved among Latter-day Saints. In the first stanza he testifies: “Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia! Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia! Raise your joys and triumphs high; Alleluia! Sing, ye heav’ns, and earth reply, Alleluia!”4
It is easy to see how some secular traditions have become general symbols of the Resurrection and thus are part of present-day Easter celebrations. But they succeed as symbols only in a very general sense. While some of these traditions may seem to help some people appreciate the general nature of returning life, they do not by any means adequately represent the profound miracle that took place in our behalf—that Jesus Christ was literally dead in the flesh, but through divine power was raised to life again, assuring immortality for all mankind. In this regard, Elder James E. Talmage has written:
“This is indeed a day of days to all Christians. … It is the anniversary of the greatest event in all history, the most effective miracle known to man—a miracle surpassing all that the mind of man could of itself conceive. …
“The Latter-day Saints believe in a literal resurrection of the body. They accept the biblical doctrine in all its beauty and simplicity; and be it remembered, the resurrection of the body is the controlling thought and the central idea of Easter service. …
“It is a fact that we look around in nature vainly for any analogy of the resurrection. … The egg, which is exhibited as the Easter symbol, has been pointed to as an instance of life after death. It has been said that the coming forth of the bird from the tomb-like recess of the egg is an instance of the return of life from death. The analogy is faulty; for … the egg that can hatch or may hatch is not dead; and if it be truly dead, it does not again come to life. The bursting forth of the buds in the spring time, the putting on of their foliage again by the trees, has been strained by some … as another instance of a resurrection from the dead; but I believe that this is equally faulty, for the tree that is dead does not put forth leaves in the spring, and the plant that is dead does not again bear blossoms. The sleep of the insect by which it passes from the crawling larva into the death-like, corpse-like chrysalis, from which, after a time, the winged imago comes forth in all the glory of maturity, has been used by others as an instance of the resurrection. But, again, this is faulty … , for the chrysalis is not dead, and if it were it would not burst forth into the winged beauty that crowns the sequence of insect life. … Jesus died upon the cross. His spirit was literally and actually separated from His body; … and it was only by the power of God that it could be again brought to life. We believe that we shall in very truth die, and that the spirit—that immortal part of man, which existed before the body was framed, and which shall exist and continue to live after that body has gone to decay, that spirit shall take upon itself again this tabernacle of earthly element, immortalized, however, and destined to serve it as a fit garment through all eternity.”5