Many people today associate Easter with a deluge of chocolate eggs rather than the Christian commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and many other religious festivals and customs.
A sign maybe that religion plays a lesser part in our lives than once was or simply that the chocolate manufacturers and retailers see this as an opportunity to make further sales over the Easter period with chocolate easter eggs and gifts, which over time has become the trend. A combination of these and a whole host of many other factors from the way we eat to the way we live generally has determined the chocolate fest that is now Easter.
Whilst the chocolate Easter egg is a relatively new tradition the origin of the Easter egg, and many more modern day Easter symbols, such as the Easter bunny, goes back a very long way and pre-date Christianity. The historical intermingling of pagan, Christian and Jewish beliefs and practices has left its legacy in many of the things we maybe take for granted about Easter and its traditions today.
Easter comes near to the time of the spring equinox on 21 March, when the length of the day and night are equal. Throughout history, many ancient cultures have celebrated this as a time of birth and renewal, following the darkness of the long winter.
Historians have traced the origin of the word Easter to the Scandinavian word 'Ostra' and the Germanic 'Ostern' or 'Eastre'. Both of these derive from the names of mythological goddesses of spring and fertility, for whom festivals were held at the time of the Spring Equinox. Similar goddesses were known by other names in other cultures around the Mediterranean, such as Aphrodite from Cyprus, Astarte from Phoenicia, Demeter from Mycenae, Hathor from Egypt, and Ishtar from Assyria. All of these goddesses were celebrated in the spring.
Modern symbols of Easter, such as the egg and the bunny, have their origins in paganism. Rabbits were the most potent symbol of fertility and the egg, the start of all life, was often thought to have magical powers.
Modern-day pagans continue to celebrate the coming of spring as part of a seasonal cycle known as the 'wheel of the year'. Some pagans carry out rituals at this time, such as symbolically planting seeds, and holding egg races and egg hunts.
The Jewish Passover
The Christian Easter also falls near to the time of the Jewish festival of Passover or Pesach, one of the most important feasts in the Jewish calendar. Passover is an eight day observance commemorating the freedom and exodus of the Israelites (Jews who were held as slaves) from Egypt during the reign of the Pharoah Ramses II. Passover is a time of family gatherings and lavish meals called Seders, accompanied by special foods, songs and customs. It begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan — which in 2004 will be April 5th. Early Christians, some of whom were of Jewish origin, were influenced by stories of the coming of the Messiah as foretold by the Jewish prophets, and integrated the Christian Easter with the existing festival. In some parts of Europe there are similarities between the name for Easter, as in the French 'Pâques', and the Jewish 'Pesach'.
The date of Easter is not fixed, and always falls on the first Sunday following the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox, making it any time between March 22 and April 25. However, Christian churches in the East, closer to the birth of Christianity and in which old traditions were strong, observe Easter according to the date of the Passover.
The Christian tradition
Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with over a billion followers. Around 30 million people in Britain claim to be Christian, though only about 6 million of these are actively committed to the Christian faith. Easter is the most important Christian festival, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion. It follows Lent, a 40-day period of penitence beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Easter Sunday.
The last week of Lent is Holy Week, which progresses according to the story of Jesus' last days, through Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday (the Last Supper), Good Friday (the Crucifixion) and Easter Sunday (the Resurrection). Holy Saturday is marked by the first Easter service, the Easter Vigil, when faithful Christians watch and wait, hopeful that Christ will return at midnight. The Easter or Paschal candle is lit during the service, a symbol of Christ risen as the light of the world, helping mankind to shed the darkness of its sins.
Some historians believe the death and resurrection stories were first associated with the Roman myth of Attis, the son by virgin birth of the fertility goddess Cybele, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. Attis' death and resurrection were celebrated at the time of year we would call Easter and there are other similarities between the two stories, such as the effigy of Attis hanging from a tree. In ancient times, Christians and pagans used to quarrel about which of their gods was the imitation, but modern Christians regard the story of Jesus's death and resurrection as true and as unrelated to the Roman tradition. It's believed that early Christians may have gradually incorporated existing pagan influences into their religion in order to make it more acceptable and to prevent converts from being persecuted.
Hot cross buns
At the feast of Eostre, the Saxon fertility goddess, an ox, was sacrificed, and its crossed horns became a symbol of the season carved into the bread. The word 'bun' derives from the Saxon word 'boun' meaning 'sacred ox'.
It's believed that the lily, because of its shape, was associated with the reproductive organs, and therefore with fertility.
The pagans would light bonfires to welcome the rebirth of the sun God. Christians now celebrate the Easter Vigil service.
The symbols of the Norse goddess Ostara were the hare and the egg, both representing fertility. The earthly symbol for the goddess Eastre, goddess of the dawn, was also the rabbit, a symbol of new life. Historians believe the legend of the Easter Bunny originated in Germany before surfacing in the New World in the seventeenth century. Children believed the Easter Bunny would leave them coloured eggs if they were good, and left out their Easter bonnets and caps for the gifts.
The egg has been a symbol of rebirth and fertility for many centuries. Long before Christianity was introduced, eggs were painted with bright colours to celebrate the sunlight of spring.
Decorating and colouring Easter eggs was a popular custom in the middle ages, and throughout Europe different cultures have evolved their own styles and colours. In Greece, crimson-coloured Easter eggs are exchanged, whereas in Eastern Europe and Russia silver and gold decorations are common, and Austrian Easter eggs often have plant and fern designs.
The first of the highly wrought Fabergé eggs was made as an Easter gift for the Empress Marie of Russia from her husband, Tsar Alexander, in 1883. It featured a small gold egg in an outside shell of platinum and enamel.
Easter eggs have been coloured and decorated from earliest times. In Edward I's household accounts for 1307 there is an entry of:
"18 pence for 450 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the Royal household".
Later, craftsmen made artificial eggs of silver and gold, ivory or porcelain, often inlaid with jewels. The ultimate Easter egg-shaped gifts must have been the fabulous jewelled creations by Carl Fabergé made during the 19th Century for the Russian Czar and Czarina. Today, these superb creations are precious museum pieces.
In the 18th century, people could buy pasteboard or papier-maché eggs, in which they hid small gifts. By the 19th century cardboard eggs covered with silk, lace or velvet and fastened with ribbon were fashionable.
In Europe Easter eggs are taken seriously. The old art of decorating the real egg is still very much alive. Many of them are dyed red to symbolise Christ's blood.
The chocolate Easter egg
The chocolate Easter egg has developed from the simple type wrapped in paper to the beribboned variety wrapped in brightest foil and packed in a box or basket.
The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in Europe in the early 19th Century with France and Germany taking the lead in this new artistic confectionery. A type of eating chocolate had been invented a few years earlier but it could not be successfully moulded. Some early eggs were solid while the production of the first hollow chocolate eggs must have been rather painstaking as the moulds were lined with paste chocolate one at a time!
John Cadbury made his first 'French eating Chocolate' in 1842 but it was not until 1875 that the first Cadbury Easter Eggs were made. This may have been because he was not sufficiently impressed with continental eggs to wish to compete with them or because he was too busy with other aspects of his growing business. In fact, progress in the chocolate Easter egg market was very slow until a method was found of making the chocolate flow into the moulds.
The modern chocolate Easter egg with its smoothness, shape and flavour owes its progression to the two greatest developments in the history of chocolate - the invention of a press for separating cocoa butter from the cocoa bean by the Dutch inventor Van Houten in 1828 and the introduction of a pure cocoa by Cadbury Brothers in 1866. The Cadbury process made large quantities of cocoa butter available and this was the secret of making moulded chocolate or indeed, any fine eating chocolate.
The earliest Cadbury chocolate eggs were made of 'dark' chocolate with a plain smooth surface and were filled with dragees. The earliest 'decorated eggs' were plain shells enhanced by chocolate piping and marzipan flowers.
Decorative skill and variety soon followed and by 1893 there were no less than 19 different lines on the Cadbury Brothers Easter list in the UK. Richard Cadbury's artistic skill undoubtedly played an important part in the development of the Easter range. Many of his designs were based on French, Dutch and German originals adapted to Victorian tastes. From Germany came the 'crocodile' finish which by breaking up the smooth surface, disguised minor imperfections; still used today by some manufacturers, this was the forerunner to the many distinctive finishes now available.
The launch in 1905 of the famous Cadbury's Dairy Milk Chocolate made a tremendous contribution to the Easter egg market. The popularity of this new kind of chocolate vastly increased sales of Easter eggs and did much to establish them as seasonal best sellers. Today the Easter egg market is predominantly milk chocolate.
There's ancient evidence of egg rolling. Egg rolling, which symbolised the rolling away of the tomb of Christ was a popular custom, probably the most popular, and is still played today in many countries throughout Europe today. The Washington Easter Egg Roll dates from at least 1872, and now takes place as an annual event in the grounds of the White House. The children and grandchildren of the American President traditionally take part.
In pagan times the egg was believed to have special powers. It was buried under the foundations of buildings to ward off evil, and brides stepped upon an egg before crossing the threshold of their new home. To be given an egg was to wish many children upon the recipient.
Whatever your beliefs, Easter today represents a time for celebration of new life, spring and fertility. The giving of decorated Easter eggs and gifts, the Easter egg hunts, familiar images of young bunnies and chicks. They all combine many of the age-old customs so we can each enjoy in our own way, no matter how big or small the gesture.
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