Our month, April derives its name from the Latin word, aperire,
which literally means, “to open.” Nature is awakening from winter’s slumber and is beginning to bring forth new life. Human hearts open as well. There are some April mornings — clear, crisp, with the faint scent of growing life on the cool morning breeze and the song of birds rising to meet the day — that surely carry a memory of the first fine mornings of the world.
This weekend are celebrations of two related religious observances that strongly resonate through our culture, Easter, this Sunday and Passover, which began this past Tuesday. Both Easter and Passover, in keeping with many of mankind’s spring festivals across the ages, represent new beginnings. They are more than just religious celebrations. They are all part of a season. We are in the midst of spring, which constantly reminds us of life’s cycle.
Passover is probably the best known of the Jewish holidays, mostly because it ties in with Christian history (the Last Supper was a Passover seder). It is also one of the most popular and widely observed Jewish holidays (Yom Tov) and is the first of the three major Jewish festivals.
Passover is a spring festival and begins on the night of the first full moon after the spring equinox and, for Jewish people, has both historical and agricultural significance. Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but today, little attention is given to this aspect of the holiday any.
The primary observances of Passover are related to the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery. Told in the Old Testament Book, Exodus, God inflicted ten plagues on the Egyptians before Pharaoh released his Hebrew slaves. The tenth plague was the killing of every firstborn male, from the Pharaoh’s son to the firstborn of the prisoner in the dungeon captive and even the firstborn of the livestock. The Hebrews were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the Lord’s “Angel of Death” passed over these homes, hence the term “passover”.
When Pharaoh freed the Hebrews, they left in such a hurry that they did not wait for the bread dough to rise. In commemoration of this, during Passover no leavened bread is eaten and is why Passover is also referred to as “The Festival of the Unleavened Bread.” Matza (flat unleavened bread) is the primary symbol of the holiday.
Easter is, probably, for Christians the time of year with the greatest spiritual significance, and for a lot of the rest of the Western world a holiday weekend filled with dyed eggs, chocolate, jelly beans and other sweet treats.
But, Easter is more than the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, just as it is more than a massive chocfest for kids and the confectionery industry. This ancient festival of the West has a rich tradition of folklore which is both fascinating and provides an understanding of the foundations of our own culture. A surprising amount of the folklore of Easter stretches back in time, long before the beginning of Christianity.
In ancient pre-Christian times this particular time of year a variety of cultures celebrated the festivals of the “Year Gods” — Attis, Adonis, Osiris and Dionysus — who like Christ die and are reborn each year. Each of these gods were the sons of a god and a mortal woman. Attis, Adonis, Osiris and Dionysus were each a savior who saved his people through sacrifice. These gods were associated with crops and vegetation, dying each year, at harvest time, only to be reborn in the spring.
The story of Attis is a good example to look at. In time of the Roman Empire, Romans observed a 10-day festival in honor of Attis, son of the goddess Cybele. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday. A pine tree, representing Attis, was chopped down and wrapped in a linen shroud, decorated with violets and placed in a tomb in the Cybele’s temple. The priests of her cult gashed themselves with knives as they danced ecstatically, sympathizing with Cybele in her grief. The celebration continued rising to a crescendo for two days. On the third day, a priest opened the tomb at dawn, revealing that it was empty and announcing that Attis was saved. Romans took to the streets rejoicing over the resurrection. The day was known as Hilaria or the Day of Joy, a time of feasting and merriment. Kind of has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?
In an ironic twist, Cybele’s temple was on today’s Vatican Hill. In the early days of Christianity in Rome, there were often violent conflicts on Vatican Hill between Christian worshippers and devotees of Cybele & Attis over whose was the true god, and whose the imposter.
What I find particularly interesting is that in the ancient world, wherever cultures had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts. Eventually Christianity came to an accommodation with the pagan Spring festival. Although we see no celebration of Easter in the New Testament, early church fathers celebrated it, and today many churches are offering “sunrise services” at Easter – an obvious hold over from another solar celebration.
In fact, the name Easter comes from the Anglo Saxon, Eostre
, their goddess of spring and of the dawn. Eostre was a fertility goddess and eggs and rabbits were sacred to her, as was the full moon. Our words East
are both derived from her name.
Eostre’s festival was held around the spring equinox and was not associate with the sun, it was a lunar festival. Even today, the moon still exerts its influence on when our contemporary Easter is celebrated. Quite early in the history of the Christian church, and after considerable controversy, the date of Easter was fixed with a formula that is still in use today. Easter is timed to be on the Sunday that follows the first full moon after the spring equinox. This is the reason that Easter falls between March 22 and April 25.
You may be wondering, okay, understand the moon association, but what do the eggs and rabbits have to do with all of this? Well, we need to look at Eostre’s myth which tells how the goddess once saved a bird, whose wings had frozen during the winter, by turning it into a rabbit. Because the rabbit had once been a bird, it could still lay eggs, and that rabbit, over time, became our modern Easter Bunny.
Eggs, like rabbits and hares, are fertility symbols of extreme antiquity; since birds lay eggs and rabbits and hares give birth to large litters in the early spring, they became symbols of the rising fertility of the earth at spring time. Many ancient cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Romans, all used eggs as part of their spring festivals.
In Medieval Europe, eggs were forbidden during the season of Lent. Folks may have not eaten eggs during those forty days, but the chickens kept laying. So eggs became a mainstay of Easter meals, and a prized Easter gift for children and servants. The hardboiled eggs were dyed red in memory of Christ’s blood, then given to children as a talisman to preserve their health over the ensuing twelve months. The protective qualities of the scarlet-dyed egg are still invoked in parts of Europe to guard fields and vineyards from lightning and hail — a red-dyed hardboiled egg is often buried at the edge of the fields for that purpose. Our modern hardboiled and candy Easter eggs harken back to a time when the eggs were used for a more serious purpose.
At Easter, any baker worth his crust will bake up a big batch of hot cross buns because they still sell, well, like hot cakes. But, these Hot-Cross-Buns also have their origins in pre-Christian lore, originally these buns were pagan offerings. The cross upon the buns is said to either represent the four quarters of the moon or the horns of a bull, if the latter is right this may suggest that Anglo-Saxon sacrifice of a bull or ox at this time in honor of Eostre. Curiously, the buns were not eaten as we do today, they were hung from rafters to scare away any evil that lurked within the house, probably due to the fact that the buns came to represent good luck.
The Christian church, on orders of the Pope, took over the festival of Eostre incorporating the customs into early Christianity. Because the festival of Eostre celebrated life and it’s rebirth in spring, European Christians found it easy to swap Eostre for their own symbol of rebirth, the resurrected Christ, retaining the name Eostre or Easter.
And most of you are probably familiar with the custom of wearing new clothes or at least a new bonnet for Easter. But, I’ll bet there are very few that know where this tradition sprang from. Easter is preceded by the season of Lent, and at one time, people wore the same clothes throughout Lent, finally discarding them, you can imagine how nice that would be after wearing the same togs for 6 weeks of so, for a new outfit on Easter Sunday.
There are still some superstitions that cling to the custom of wearing new duds for the day — those who fail to wear at least one new item risk having their existing clothes soiled by birds or peed upon by passing dogs. Some even say you risks having your eyes pecked out by crows!
Now you may thinking, gee, there certainly seem to be a lot of observances and festivals focused on spring. And you’re right! There is no shortage of festivals and traditions surrounding the coming of spring. But to folks living in the distant past, after the cold and dark of winter, spring was eagerly looked for and celebrated it’s arrival for the basic reason that their food supplies would soon be restored.
Old traditions aside, Easter Sunday is still a day that the church attendance is the greatest. But, like Christmas, Easter has nearly become commercialized beyond any semblance of religious or even folk-customs, but as long as children still hunt for eggs on Easter Day, we will be re-enacting traditions that stretch back for millennia.
One last thing to share with you about Easter. The Celtic folk, poetic as usual, claim that the rising sun actually dances on Easter morning, and to this day, people in Ireland, Scotland and parts of England get up before dawn and head for the nearest hilltop.
May you all have a Happy Easter and Happy Passover! And blessed be Eostre, Attis and the rest.
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