Cracking into the history of Easter: Age-old traditions

Julia Eilert

Jumping out of a pastel-colored corner, Easter is about to hit us full force with ribbons, eggs, and a mountain of chocolate bunnies.

Like many holidays, the exact beginnings of Easter are unclear. It is widely accepted, however, that Easter was originally a Pagan holiday celebrating the end of winter and the Spring Equinox. Easter is a ‘movable festival,” its date set on the Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox.

Confusion comes in finding out what portions of this holiday came from different traditional festivals and celebrations. The discontinuity can be seen even today with the seemingly random images and items we correlate with this time of the year.  

For the past 20 years, Peeps have been the number one non-chocolate candy, according to CNBC. Factoring in that around 17 percent of candy sold in a year is seasonal, and more than a third of that 17 percent is Easter-themed candy, that’s a menagerie of sugary marshmallow chicks and rabbits flying off the shelves. So, how did these specific symbols become associated with Easter?

A popular theory of Easter is that it resembles the cycle of the seasons, and the renewal of spring itself. In a story that seems to be mirrored by Persephone and Demeter, the Sumerian epic “The Descent of Inanna,” is commonly cited as evidence to this approach.

In this legend, Inanna follows her husband into the underworld, where she is killed. Without her presence, the earth wilts, grows cold and dies, much like it does in Persephone’s absence. Inanna is revived six months later, under the condition that she return to the underworld in another six months. This story of revival was celebrated in the spring, and it is most likely that many of its elements were passed on to our modern Easter traditions.

Going along with rebirth, eggs traditionally signify renewal and new beginnings after cold winters in cultures all around. At this point, the earliest decorated ‘Easter’ eggs appeared in the 13th century to show festivity at the end of the Lenten season.

Rabbits then became closely tied with Easter for the same reason as eggs. Known for their fertility, rabbits became the motif of reproduction and new birth. The Easter Bunny itself was most likely adopted from German immigrants in the 1700s and their traditional children’s story of an egg-laying hare known as “Osterhase” who would leave colorful eggs in homemade nests, according to History Channel website.

During the rise of Christianity, the holiday was combined with the resurrection of Christ, and this is the meaning still most commonly understood today. Many of the same symbols are used in religious celebrations, making Easter a melting pot of old customs and valued beliefs.

While the amalgamation of all these traditions and stories can make the origins of Easter a little murky, the modern holiday still holds true to its original message of rejuvenation and new beginnings. So, with the continued festivity of chocolates and dyed eggs, we can also partake in the enjoyment of knowing we’re honoring our ancestors’ rituals with this holiday.