by Trudi Wood
When I lived in Indiana and my sons were small, winter was a challenge. Oh sure, we loved the prospect of a white Christmas, but a white Easter was just going too far! Whenever that happened we remained cooped up with our wood stoves and fireplaces still blazing while the tease of spring flirted outside our windows. We could look longingly at daffodils and crocuses trying to breech the frozen ground, and watch our children scramble for Easter eggs while dressed in mittens and parkas. It was an insult, but it was still fun.
Easter is fun. I know it's the most religious of Christian holidays and, in fact, falls during the time of Jewish Passover, which lends even more reverence. Still, it's fun. This isn't meant to be an insult, but rather to point out that this time of year has historically been a time to rejoice. Easter is meant to be a time of joy.
Margot loves Easter. To her it's simple. Easter means "Rabbit-Tail"--she will not call him "Easter Bunny"--will bring candy and some pretty toy trinkets in a colored basket. Margot, my forty-three-year-old elfin-child sister, has Down Syndrome. She knows Easter at its most elemental level; it's pretty, and Rabbit-Tail visits.
I'm sure she has no concept of the story of the Easter bunny, and wouldn't understand if I tried to tell her. However, her joy at the celebration can most likely be traced back many, many generations. In fact, the concept of an Easter bunny and Easter eggs baffled me for years. Somehow, the celebration of Christ's rebirth and a rabbit leaving eggs just didn't make sense. However, symbolically it all becomes very clear.
Most cultures have celebrated the ending of winter and the beginning of spring in some way. The many European cultures were no different. Tradition called for the house to be turned out and thoroughly cleaned with the onset of spring. No doubt it was due to the fact that when ancient winters were very harsh, the family livestock were often brought into the dwellings to avoid freezing and starvation. Even spring housecleaning has it's roots in ancient tradition. The family took advantage of this time to shed dark, heavy, winter clothing and don brighter-colored, lighter-weight, spring garb. After a winter spent with livestock, they were ready for fresh air and sunshine!
In most European pagan cultures spring included the celebration of fertility. Thus that most fertile of creatures, the bunny rabbit, became one symbol of spring. while the egg, an obvious symbol of birth, shared the status. So in celebration of the end of winter, people gave eggs as gifts, dressed in their finest, prettiest frocks and watched for rabbits to multiply. I know that may seem a bit simplistic, but it's close.
Ironically, the Christian concept of Easter also has roots in ancient traditions. Even the name Easter comes from the pagan Teutonic goddess of spring and dawn. The symbolism isn't lost on the Christians either; the sharing of eggs, the fine dress, the celebration of fertility is all included in the Christian Easter. For example, at the Crucifixion of Christ, Mary is reported to have handed out gifts of eggs to soldiers in hopes that they would show mercy, and Mary Magdalene carried a basket of eggs into the Christ's tomb on Easter Sunday as well. The giving of eggs is a long established means of celebrating the glory of life and its continuity.
Celebrating fertility may not seem quite so appropriate. However, the Christians of ancient times depended on high birth rates to help spread their faith. So, it seems that the ancient pagan celebrations and the modern Christian celebrations have more in common than some folks may realize. Most likely allowing the similarities between the pagan and Christian faiths to meld together was one of the smartest things the Romans ever did. When the Romans set out to conquer the world, they did so as a means of establishing a larger tax base. They met with resistance of course, but in most cases the conquering Romans allowed the established population to maintain their cultural beliefs, as long as they willingly attended the Christian churches as well. It was a brilliant move, because eventually the two cultural beliefs borrowed from each other to find a middle ground that would allow for the spread of Christianity and continue peace throughout most of Europe. That' s one reason we find so many differing traditions in the celebration of Christian holidays like Easter.
This year, Easter is on April fourth. That seems a little early in the year, but the date for Easter was established in 325 A.D. at the Council of Nicaea to be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring, March 21. Easter is the quintessential spring celebration! Christians can feel reverence in their religious holiday, and anyone can enjoy the celebration of spring with chocolate bunnies, candy eggs, and visits from "Rabbit-Tail."
Next year, Easter will fall on the twenty-third of April. I'm going out on a limb here and predicting that maybe there won't be any snow on those Easter egg hunts and the only fires will be in barbecue grills. The mittens will be stored away for the next year's snow and those mothers gazing out the windows will relish the daffodils and crocuses in full bloom.
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Trudi Wood is a misplaced Hoosier living in Florida who has been married longer than she was single. Trudi has three basically grown sons, a sweet old dog, and a terrorist bunny rabbit. She has a degree in criminology with a focus on history and juvenile justice and wants to save the world, but is still trying to figure out from what.