In the Christian world, Holy Week, the week leading up to the Easter holiday, is usually a busy one for most families and rightly so.
Easter, as with Christmas, has many customs of celebration within each family unit, and interestingly enough, many are quite similar. The Easter baskets, the Easter egg hunts, the early Sunrise services, a new Easter bonnet just like a new Christmas dress. The symbols are not the same though. We have used many of the same symbols for Easter that we have used year after year. Should we not be asking ourselves the question, why do we use them each Easter holiday?
Easter originated from the Hebrew word "pesach," which means Passover. Some historians believe the name comes from the ancient Norsemen's word "eastar" or "Ostar," which means "season of the growing sun" and "season of new birth." Other scholars believe the Teutonic goddess of dawn and springtime, whose name was Eastre and whose symbol was the hare, is the source.
Think of the different things we celebrate at Easter, such as the Easter sunrise celebrations. Try to imagine, if you will, living in a world where you have no clue as to what time of the day it is, or what day of the week it is, or for that matter, what day of the year it is. You have no clocks, watches or calendars. What do you do? Well, you rely on nature. Simply, the sun. The long winter months were hard for the people long, long ago. Depression was rampant and when the spring equinox finally came, the people would be extremely thankful and celebrate the sun's arrival.
The Druid priests would perform spring fire rites, believing the spirit of the sun sent them life-giving rays over their fields. But the Christian church banned this spring festival by the Celts, calling them paganistic, and this is where St. Patrick (yes, the one from St. Patrick's Day) is said to have blended the Celtic celebration with the Christian church by starting a spring celebration called the "Easter bonfire" to be a part of the Christian Mass. Firecrackers to scare off evil spirits, ghosts and witches were used with the representation of bright, glorifying sun rays that meant hope and triumph over death and darkness in the world.
Religious scholars believe ancient Egyptians and others were of the opinion the world was one big egg and this "world egg" broke in two, and everything came forth from that egg. Remember eggs represent fertility and immortality, so it easily is seen with spring, things sprout forth in new life. As for coloring of the eggs, it again goes back to the belief of keeping evil spirits away. It was believed if the eggs are painted in bright colors, it would persuade the evil spirits who bring bad luck to leave you alone. It was believed the more colorful the eggs, the more helpful and attracted to you the spirits would be.
Egg games are popular also, but played differently in various countries. In England, on Egg Saturday, which marks the last four days before Lent, children go from house to house asking for eggs or meat, and if you refuse, crockery is said to be thrown at your homes. Then there is egg shackling, egg cracking, egg races and Easter egg hunts. The egg rolling is a symbolic game representing the rolling away of the stone of Jesus' grave or tomb. Others say the rabbit emerging from his burrow is a symbol of Christ rising from the tomb on Easter morning. But wait -- hold on to your hat on this one -- Easter eggs do not come from the chicken, for according to German folklore, the Easter bunny lays them and hides them in gardens. In France, it is believed the eggs are dropped by the church bells on their way back from Rome.
Now for the Easter bunny. Rabbits are not hares. Hares are rabbits' cousins who have shorter ears and longer hind legs. What does a child care -- they all hop. Right? The Easter bunny is said to have been brought to the U.S. by German immigrants who called them "Oschter Haws." And, here we have to ask, why rabbits and not chickens? Old folklore says witches had the power to turn themselves into rabbits, and with the rabbits well-known reproductive skills, it is a popular spring fertility symbol. Think of the rabbit's foot folklore, where its magic is to believe to offer sexual potency, magical powers of financial prosperity and good luck. Basically, it all narrows down to the German folklore again, where the goddess Ostara always was accompanied by a hare. Since she was their Spring Festival goddess, this symbol surfaced. Although there never has been any Christian symbol to rabbits, the children enjoy the popular role the Easter bunny offers.
Maybe it is time to add a new Easter custom in your life; the opportunity lies in the "Easter pretzel." The story of the pretzel varies, as does all folklore, but again, the Anglo-Saxons honored their goddess of springtime, Eastre, with eating wheat cakes. It is believed, out of this ritual, evolved hot cross buns made by English monks who previously had baked pretzels at the Vatican in Rome during the fifth century. These pretzels were given to the poor for 40 days during Lent. To the monks, the pretzel symbolized Lent because of the shape of the pretzel, bearing a striking resemblance to a person praying with their arms folded across their chest. Other legends reveal in 610 AD, an Italian monk invented the pretzel as a reward to children who learned their prayers.
The legend I like best is the story that says the shape of the pretzel represents the position of the arms of a monk in prayer, adding the three holes represent the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In all of this, the actual origin of the pretzel remains a mystery.
Nadene Albrecht is a member of the Generations advisory committee.