Easter Sunday celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after his crucifixion in 30AD. Yet aside from the cross atop a hot cross bun, very little this time of year has anything to do with the New Testament. Instead it’s bunnies, eggs and more chocolate than you know what to do with. So when and how did this become a part of the Easter story? Lincolnshire Today finds out.
As with many Christian traditions, Easter has its roots in pagan beliefs. Essentially, Easter is a celebration of new life – of birth and rebirth. That’s as much in a metaphysical sense as meteorological, with the waning of winter and the beginning of spring.
Traditions surrounding this idea are ubiquitous, observed in ancient times and disparate regions. To this day it remains a fundamental part of the human experience. We all welcome the longer days and the return of more light to our lives. But how have those hallmarks of the Easter holiday become part of the story?
Hot cross buns
Ah, the hot cross bun, that sweet, gently-spiced goody spiked in dried fruit and topped with the iconic cross. This tasty treat has always moved with the times, with a chocolate variety on shelves for years now and, more recently, vegan and gluten-free options available. Despite its continuing popularity, the bun dates back millennia.
In the New Testament, Israelites are said to have baked sweet buns for an idol, while religious leaders attempted to put a stop to it. But the exact origins are murky at best with various and, often, conflicting stories and accounts. For example, one story claims that in the 12th century, an Anglican monk baked buns and marked them with a cross in honour of Good Friday.
Stories such as these intertwine with real history and, in the 16th century, we know that Queen Elizabeth I passed a law limiting the sale of sweet buns to funerals, Christmas and Good Friday, further solidifying the relationship between this sweet bun and Easter.
There are plenty of stories backing up claims that hot cross buns were baked on Good Friday for superstitious rather than religious reasons. One story claims that a bun baked on this day and hung from the rafters one one’s home would ward off evil spirits for a year. Another says that sharing the bun with a loved one guarantees friendship for the year.
The Easter bunny may very well be a leftover from the pagan festival of Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess whose symbol was the rabbit or the hare. Thanks to their renowned breeding habits, rabbits have always symbolised fertility, so they’ve never been far from celebrations of birth and rebirth.
But the Easter bunny as we know it is a very American invention. This is believed to have stemmed from German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s bringing with them their folkloric egg-laying hare called ‘Osterhare’ or ‘Oschter Haws’. Their children would make nests in which the creature could lay its coloured eggs and, eventually, the custom spread across the entire United States.
Jacob Grimm – of the Brothers Grimm fame – further cemented these Easter celebrations as distinctly pagan in 1835 when he said that the Easter bunny arose from primitive pagan traditions and tied things back to the aforementioned Eostre. But the Catholic church vehemently denies this association, claiming that there is no direct evidence of a pagan correlation (the irony appears to be lost on them). Instead, it argues that the idea of the Easter bunny is a distinctly Christian symbol. It says that ancient Greeks believed rabbits were able to reproduce as virgins so, of course, the animal became associated with the Virgin Mary and appeared alongside her in illuminated manuscripts and paintings.
As with the symbols we’ve already explored, the exchange of eggs – the non-chocolate kind at least – is an ancient custom, celebrated by many cultures. Eggs are representative of new life and it’s believed that the decorating of eggs for Easter dates as far back as the 13th century.
History also tells us that, centuries ago, churches had their congregations abstain from eating eggs for lent. They would then be able to eat them again come Easter, giving them a significance for the occasion. And, in 19th century Russia, beautifully decorated, often jewel-encrusted, eggs were exchanged on Easter.
We may never know the true origins of Easter but it’s likely a mix of ancient beliefs and traditions incorporated into Christian worship. While observing the resurrection of Christ remains important for many people, Easter can more generally be seen as a celebration of new life. Something to think about next time you’re tucking into a hot cross bun or taking the little ones on an Easter egg hunt.