– Part I of World Religion Series –
Yesterday was the Christian holiday of Easter. Many people celebrated Easter by coloring hard boiled eggs, searching for candy-filled plastic eggs supposedly hidden by an egg-laying rabbit, had a large family meal anchored by the consumption of ham, and children were given brightly decorated baskets of chocolates. Well, duh. How else would you celebrate the miraculous event of the resurrection of the Savior of all humankind? Perfectly sensible right? Let’s see where these weird customs come from and how they fit into the Christian Easter celebration.
The Name “Easter”.
An ancient Sumerian legend discovered on a tablet dating back to 2500 B.C., may very well be the first “Easter story”. Christianity.com retells this legend as follows. Tammuz was married to a woman named Ishtar (pronounced Easter). When Tammuz died, Ishtar was so stricken with grief that she followed him to the underworld. In the underworld, naked and bowed low, Ishtar was judged, killed and hung up for display. In her absence, the earth lost its fertility; crops ceased to grow and animals stopped reproducing. After Ishtar had been away for 3 days, her assistant sought help from the Gods. One of the Gods went to the underworld and revived Tammuz and Ishtar, giving them the power to return to the earth in the form of sunlight over the following 6 months. At the end of that 6 month period, Tammuz returned to the underworld. Ishtar, again, followed him. They remained in the underworld for the next 6 months, at which time they were rescued by a Water God. Thus was explained the cycle of life (spring and summer) and death (autumn and winter).
The cycles of death and rejuvenated life is a popular theme in most world religions because they highlight the A) Conquering of light over darkness; B) Life conquering death; and C) The purity of virgin birth and sacrifice.
What Is Up With The Bunny?
The “Easter Bunny” is an example of how Christianity spread throughout the world as quickly as it did. Quite frankly, the pagans were told to just wrap their favorite beliefs into the Christian holidays. That way, these pagans could be taught and incorporated into the Christian, or more specifically the Catholic, faith.
The Easter Bunny dates back to 13th century Germany. The Germanic folk, known as Teutons, worshipped pagan gods and goddesses. One goddess was Eostra, the goddess of fertility and spring. The rabbit was associated with Eostra due to its prolific breeding habits.
Now, fastforward to 540 A.D. Pope Gregory sent 40 monks to Briton in order to convert the inhabitants to Catholicism. Per Pope Gregory’s instructions, the missionaries convinced the Anglo-Saxons to combine their ancient celebrations with Christian festivities. The Anglo-Saxons were celebrating Eostra at the time of the March Equinox. Catholics were celebrating Easter on the first Sunday following the full moon after the March Equinox. So…Easter and Eostra were merged and the rabbit was part of the package deal. So we have the ancient Germans to thank for the Easter Bunny.
The egg has long been held as a symbol of fertility and rebirth. The Christians took the symbolism and bumped it up a few notches. They saw the egg shell as being symbolic of the empty tomb following Jesus’ resurrection. The Christians of Mesopotamia began to dye the eggs red to symbolize the blood shed by Jesus during the crucifixion. The tradition has grown to dying eggs many different bright colors and some excitement has been added by having children search to find hidden colored eggs.
Why Is Ham The Traditional Protein?
In my opinion, the tradition of eating ham on Easter is the most overlooked rebellious movement of early Christians.
The accepted explanation for the consumption of ham at Easter is one of mere convenience. A pig, plentiful on farms in early Europe, would be slaughtered in the fall. It could be salted and cured throughout the winter months, leading to it being ready to eat at spring time.
However, I actually believe that the consumption of ham on Easter is a much older tradition. Remember that Christ was not Christian. He was Jewish. As were his disciples. Christ was sent to pay the price for the sins of all mankind. He did not become a “savior” until he was crucified, died and was resurrected. Thereafter, his followers would be considered “Christians”.
Jewish law did, and continues to, barr the consumption of “unclean meat”, which specifically includes all pork. No ham, no bacon, no pork rinds, no pork chops…nothing. So when the new Christians were freed from the restrictive laws of Judaism by their savior, I believe they gave the religious bird to the Jewish leadership by making the traditional meal on the day of Christ’s resurrection one of a previously outlawed meat! What a great way to celebrate the freedom of the Christian faith! At the yearly celebration marking Christ’s conquering of death, we eat an “outlaw meat” consumed by of a group of “rebellious troublemakers” who challenged status quo.
It Is Done.
I hope we all have a better understanding of the seemingly odd Easter traditions. As you see, most of the traditions come from early pagan celebrations being combined into the Christian faith. It is this willingness to allow the local traditions into the world of a new religious movement that helped lead to the rapid and nearly worldwide dissemination of Christianity. It was seen as an accepting belief system in a time of darkness and fear.